Sunday, April 25, 1999

NKU raises the bar for lawyers-to-be

Curve to keep surprises low

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Northern Kentucky University is in the throes of improving its law school. This is good for NKU and really good for students. Some of them just don't know it yet.

        The key change involves the grading of final exams. Professors are now expected to follow a typical bell curve. This means between 8 percent and 20 percent of the students in each freshman course should get D's or F's.

        The policy applies to freshmen and all future students at the Salmon P. Chase School of Law.

        Professors had no guidelines before. Some Chase students were receiving good grades, graduating and then flunking the Kentucky Bar Exam.

        Not good, says professor Henry “Steve” Stephens, an architect of the new policy.

        “They are not well-served spending money on an endeavor at which they are not going to be successful,” he says.

        Better to give students an early wake-up call with a grading system that reflects the reality of their performance, he says.

        Some students have criticized the policy as an arbitrary quota system. They say it turns C students into D students, requires some to repeat courses and hurts their chances of getting jobs.

        Of course, they can't work if they don't pass the bar.

        Traditionally, Chase has ranked last among Kentucky's three law schools in terms of student performance on this all-important test.

        The grading policy's ultimate goal is to better prepare students for the bar. Another benefit will be stronger work ethics.

Tougher tests
        There is some protection for students. Professors can't just assigns D's and F's in order to make a quota, Mr. Stephens says. If necessary, teachers will have to rewrite their final exams, making them tough enough that only a small number of students will be able to get A's.

        A faculty committee spent about two years reviewing Chase's situation and researching how other colleges have raised their standards. In addition to the new “grade distribution” policy, NKU's law school now has funding for a full-time person to help students succeed. There's also a new drop-in center where they can pick up study tips.

What's the standard?
        All of this is necessary in part because NKU accepts nontraditional students, including some without stellar grades or test scores.

        Its law school probably wasn't the first choice for many students. To be blunt, they ended up at Chase because they couldn't get into the University of Louisville or the University of Kentucky.

        This doesn't mean Chase is a bad school. In fact, local attorneys have high praise for many of its graduates.

        Personally, I'm all for NKU's practice of taking chances on moms, dads, under-achievers and older students who have had other careers first. Maybe they didn't ace the entrance exam or get straight A's in college, but how much do these measures really matter when it comes to the practice of law?

        Imagine, for a moment, that you're in desperate need of a lawyer. Your ex-husband has purchased a boat with your credit card. You had no idea until you tried to buy a car. Now bill collectors are calling, and you're frantic.

        Which matters most — that your lawyer had high test scores and took a straight path through college, or that he promptly returns your calls and cares about your case?

        I thought so.

        Over 11 years as a reporter, I have observed many relationships between lawyers and clients. The worst lawyers have a way of blowing off cases. Maybe their client is whiny, guilty or otherwise unpleasant. Maybe the lawyer has become addicted to long lunches.

        Whatever the reason, cases end up at the bottom of an unruly stack in the middle of a neglected desk. Whether he was a Yale graduate or last in his class makes not a bit of difference. He's just a bad lawyer.

        As attorney Carlo Wessels told me recently, this is a service industry. No. 1 quality of a good lawyer: Zealous advocacy on the client's behalf.

        Mr. Wessels, I'll note, is a graduate of Chase Law School and one of Northern Kentucky's most respected tax attorneys.

        He attended Covington Latin and graduated from Thomas More College at the age of 20. He wasn't ready to go away to school, so he got his law degree from Chase and then a master's from New York University.

        “I think (Chase) was vastly underrated at the time and still is today,” Mr. Wessels says. “When I went on to NYU, I didn't feel like I missed a beat.”

        It's only fitting that Northern Kentucky University tighten its standards as it grows. I like the law school's approach — expecting hard work from students after they arrive, rather than excluding some candidates before they have a chance to shine.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at