Law school should extend recruitment program to bar-exam reform

August 19, 2023 1:00 pm
Students at the entrance to the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law. (Photo courtesy of USD)

Students at the entrance to the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law. (Photo courtesy of USD)

In a recent report to the State Bar of South Dakota, Knudson School of Law Dean Neil Fulton noted that law school applications “have been dropping nationwide for three consecutive years” and the “recent downward trend in applications is just beginning … we are projected to see a ten-year decline.”

To combat the low enrollment problem at the law school, Fulton is charting a course to create a “pathways program” to encourage enrollment at the University of South Dakota law school. He notes that this program evolved as a recommendation of the State Bar Strategic Planning Committee. The pathways program, as he described it, will extend efforts aimed at recruiting students “from college to middle school.” The program is designed to attract young students’ attention to the prospect of becoming a lawyer, hoping they will apply for admission to the law school.

I was encouraged to see this discussion of a pathways program to bolster law school applications, and it caused me to wonder: Why not extend the pathways concept to bar licensure?

The concept of “alternative pathways” is gaining recognition across the United States. Prospective lawyers can become licensed through “curriculum-based licensure” as well as apprenticeship programs.

South Dakota adheres to the controversial National Conference of Bar Examiners examination process, which multiple legal scholars have determined fails to provide a neutral and fair assessment of knowledge and skills over a diverse population of test takers.

For many decades, South Dakota enjoyed a 90-100% licensure rate for graduates of the law school. But beginning with the law school class of 2016, the bar passage rate dropped to 39% for first-time takers, with minimal improvement since. The most recent data, as compiled by the Legislative Research Council, reports that over the past three years (2020-2022), 58% of USD’s law school graduates (116 of 199) have become licensed to practice law in South Dakota.

I have been personally affected by this issue. I’m from Seoul, South Korea. I attended the University of Buffalo, State University of New York. I received my bachelor’s degree in political science (with a concentration in international politics and minors in history, philosophy and sociology) in 2013. I was admitted to the USD law school in 2014 and graduated in May 2017.

I did well in law school but struggled with the multiple choice portion of the South Dakota Bar Exam. I passed the essay and professional responsibility (ethics) portions. I did not pass the multiple choice section, which consists of 200 questions. English is my second language, and I had difficulty ascertaining the meaning of the questions and attempting to answer them in the time limit imposed.

I traveled from Seoul, South Korea, on two occasions to retake the exam. I sought to retake the exam again in 2020 but was denied permission.

I have been told that I have at least one job waiting for me in South Dakota if I can become licensed. I have formed many friendships there and truly love the state. It is my heart’s desire to live and practice law in South Dakota.

I respectfully submit that South Dakota should expand its pathways program — designed to entice young students to apply to law school — to the bar licensure process.




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Jun Byung Park
Jun Byung Park

Jun Byung Park resides in Seoul, South Korea. He is a 2017 graduate of the Knudson School of Law at the University of South Dakota, where he served as assistant law librarian.