Bar exam problems persist as jobs go unfilled

September 21, 2023 5:15 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Chief Justice Steven Jensen’s State of the Judiciary message to the Legislature in January of this year suggested that reduced State Bar licensure rates were no longer a problem in South Dakota. But results of the July bar exam indicate otherwise.  

The University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law graduated 59 students in May. Of these 59 graduates, only 27 passed the South Dakota Bar Exam. The data demonstrate that South Dakota’s law school is supplying lawyers at the rate of 45% per graduating class.

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Passage rates dropped dramatically after the Board of Bar Examiners imposed enhanced criteria in 2015.  Only 39% of USD Law graduates in the class of 2016 passed the bar exam. There was very little improvement in subsequent years, with passage rates of 45% and 52%. 

Despite assurances given by Law School Dean Neil Fulton, there has been no improvement in recent years.

Prior to the 2015 changes, the law school regularly experienced bar passage rates of 90-100%. During the 64 years in which the “diploma privilege” governed in South Dakota — a path to bar licensure without taking an exam — the licensure rate was 100% provided the applicants satisfied the “fitness” requirement. 

Today, critical attorney positions in South Dakota are unfilled — in public defender offices, in the offices of state’s attorneys, and in the extensive rural areas of South Dakota including Indian country.  The impact of South Dakota’s attorney shortage falls heavily on low-income and marginalized segments of our society.  

Former Chief Justice David Gilbertson sought to ameliorate the deficiencies in the delivery of legal services to rural areas. His efforts were nationally recognized and applauded. The 2015 enhanced scoring requirement greatly impacted this initiative, exacerbating the problem.

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Jessica Four Bear
Jessica Four Bear

Jessica Four Bear resides in Eagle Butte and is a 2017 graduate of the University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law. She serves as juvenile prosecutor for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.