When it comes to tackling the toughest test to becoming an attorney, Gonzaga Law School students have the write stuff.
Fortified by a rigorous writing and research program, Gonzaga graduates have performed better in the Washington State Bar exam than those from the state’s two other law schools - University of Washington and Seattle University - for three consecutive years.
Four out of five Gonzaga graduates passed the exam last July, the chief testing period, securing their right to practice law in Washington. That compared with three out of four statewide who passed the three-day exam.
Passing the bar is important for Gonzaga graduates who, shouldering an average debt of $63,000, need to launch their careers quickly to pay off student loans.
The high pass rate also gives them a distinction from UW, a prestigious school that’s ranked 28th best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
“The University of Washington is always held up as a model law school, but we have beat the giant several times,” said Cheryl Beckett, director of Gonzaga’s legal research and writing program.
Students and school officials offer several explanations for their success, including an accessible faculty and core classes that stress practical application over theory.
But many trace their edge to Beckett’s research and writing program, a two-year regimen that’s rare among law schools and required of all new students.
Few enjoy the program, but students agree it’s one of the best preparations for acing the bar.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Anneke Ernst, a 1997 law school graduate and prosecutor for the Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Team.
“I was a creative writer in college,” she said. “But in writing and research, there was no inserting opinion and fancy words, just relaying the most amount of information in the shortest space possible.”
Brevity is a critical skill to passing Washington’s bar. While some states use multiple choice questions, Washington issues 24 complex legal questions designed to choke long-winded test takers. Answers must be written as essays but expressed on just 64 lines, a space equivalent to the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper.
“I know some very good students who didn’t pass because they just couldn’t reduce their answers,” Ernst said.
The writing program was begun in 1992 when faculty agreed that professional communication skills were as essential as legal theory to becoming a top attorney.
Many Gonzaga Law graduates, of course, have done well without the help of the school’s writing program. Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire, U.S. Congressman George Nethercutt, Barry Loukaitis defender Mike Frost and race car driver Chad Little are all graduates who have had successful careers without the benefit of the course.
John Brangwin, a 1997 graduate who claims he “hated every damn minute” of the program, said it was one of several practical skills he used to pass the bar last summer, and win a few cases in his new job.
“My gut feeling is that the higher scores are a fluke,” said Brangwin, who handles public defender cases under a contract with the city of Wenatchee. “But GU did a good job of taking legal work out of a vacuum. I know it’s helped me.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Passing the bar