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Dean Fulton: Pass Rates Good, But Changes Coming to Bar Exam

Former USD Law students have been pushing for reforms to the bar exam, arguing that the absence of alternatives to the bar exam is keeping good aspiring lawyers from practicing in South Dakota. But Dean Neil Fulton says the bar exam isn’t keeping USD Law from soliciting more future solicitors:

The University of South Dakota Knudson School of Law saw its largest incoming class in over a decade this fall, according to a report prepared for lawmakers by Dean Neil Fulton.

The 88 students in the class of 2026 is a reflection of the school’s “investment in admissions personnel and resources,” Fulton wrote in his letter to the South Dakota Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee [John Hult, “Law School Dean to Lawmakers: More Students Admitted, Bar Exam Scores Best Neighboring States,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.10.31].

Fulton’s letter says 72% of USD Law grads pass the bar on their first try and 88% pass within two years of graduation. USD grads beat the first-time pass rates in North Dakota (67%) and Wisconsin (69%) but lagged the first-time pass rates in Nebraska (74%) and Wyoming (85%).

Fulton says our pass rates are good, but he says changes are coming that may please critics of the bar exam:

The Law School’s bar preparation work is preparing for dramatic change in coming years. The National Conference of Bar Examiners will put the NextGen Bar Examination in the field in July of 2026. NextGen will eliminate the 200 multiple-choice question MBE in favor of more “practical” questions that involve review of a closed universe of legal and factual material. These questions are in development and the Law School will participate in pilot testing of prototypes in January.…

Additionally, South Dakota’s Bar Admission Steering Committee will report to the Supreme Court this fall. It appears on track to recommend a pilot program for a limited number of applicants to obtain admission through supervised practice and assessment of a portfolio of their work. This option will likely be limited to applicants entering public service or rural practice in an effort to draw more lawyers to high need areas [Dean Neil Fulton, USD Law School, letter to Joint Committee on Appropriations, 2023.10.13].

Let’s see if those changes forestall further pushes from Rep. Mary Fitzgerald (R-31/Spearfish) and others to uproot the bar exam.


  1. jakc 2023-11-01

    USD really needs to be innovative to compete for students. The system currently in place ( a standardized test after three years of school) doesn’t make a lot of sense, and students can pass the bar without a lot of practical experience. Supervised practice, akin to the old reading the law (worked for Lincoln) is likely to produce young lawyers ready to practice and could boist enrollment

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