Kayla Estes was one of 108 recent law school graduates who passed the Maine bar exam in September. Estes now works for the Tucker Law Group in Bangor and will represent Maine businesses in employment matters. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Kayla Estes fulfilled her high school dream and became a lawyer on Monday.

The 25-year-old Milford native was one of 108 recent law school graduates who passed the Maine Bar exam in September and was sworn into the Maine Bar at the start of the week.

Estes now works for the Tucker Law Group in Bangor and will represent Maine businesses in employment matters.

Eighty-six percent of the September test takers passed the exam, the highest passage rate since July 2016 and nearly 30 percentage points higher than the average passage rate of 56.6 percent between February 2015 and July 2019.

The 2020 class of the University of Maine School of Law did even better — 48 of 53 members passed the September exam, pushing the passage rate for the state’s only law school to 90.6 percent, up from 58.6 percent last year.

The higher rate means more recent law school graduates can practice law on their own in Maine without supervision from a licensed attorney. And the recent graduates can help replace an aging crop of Maine lawyers, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of new legal challenges and case backlogs in the court system.

Those new lawyers can “hit the ground running in their legal careers,” helping law firms, legal aid organizations and residents of rural Maine, where most lawyers are nearing retirement age, said Leigh I. Saufley, dean of Maine Law and the former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice.

“In sum, it helps the Maine legal community by adding immediately to the ranks of well-trained professionals who are available to help meet the legal needs of the public, Maine businesses, Maine government, and so many others who need the help of a lawyer,” Saufley said.

Maine was lagging far behind in the percentage of test takers passing the bar, national data show. The average bar pass rate nationally last year was 79.64 percent, up nearly five points from 74.83 percent in 2018, according to the American Bar Association. Some 89.5 percent of 2017 law graduates passed a bar exam within two years.

A number of factors are responsible for this year’s rise in the portion of Maine test takers passing the two-day, 206-question exam, a change in the Maine exam’s passing score and a national change in how law schools are accredited that drove Maine Law to focus on better preparing its graduates for the exam.

The Maine Board of Bar Examiners administers the bar exam twice a year — in February and July (though this year’s July exam was delayed until September because of the coronavirus pandemic). Most July test takers graduated from law school in May, and a majority sitting for the exam in February have taken it and failed before, according to the board.

Until 2017, Maine administered its own test based primarily on Maine law. That year, the state joined more than 38 other jurisdictions in using the Uniform Bar Exam, based primarily on federal law, after a commission recommended the change.

At the time, the Board of Bar Examiners set Maine’s passing score at 276 out of 400, the second highest in the nation, because it was the equivalent of the 138 passing score for Maine’s previous exam.

But the board lowered the passing score to 270 — the same score required for passage in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts — before the February 2020 test. Six states that use the uniform test require higher passing scores, and 18 require lower scores.

The Uniform Bar Exam allows those who pass it in Maine to be licensed in other states that administer the same test and set the same passing score, and vice versa.

The national push to raise bar passage rates came from the American Bar Association’s accrediting arm, which approved a new rule in May 2019 requiring that 75 percent of law school graduates pass a bar exam within two years of graduation. It gave law schools, including the University of Maine School of Law, two years to comply or risk losing their accreditation.

About half the lawyers who practice in the state graduated from Maine Law, which did not have a full-time program until last year that focused on helping first-year students adjust to law school and third-year students to pass the bar exam.

Today, Greg Bordelon, the director of Maine Law’s academic success program, helps students in their final year prepare for the bar exam, helping them become familiar with the structure of the exam itself, and refine their approach to studying for it.

Bordelon also has instituted a coaching program through which recent Maine Law graduates work closely with those studying to take the bar exam. The lawyers check in with the students every week, share exam strategies and encourage them.

Kayla Estes was one of 108 recent law school graduates who passed the Maine bar exam in September. Estes now works for the Tucker Law Group in Bangor and will represent Maine businesses in employment matters. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Being able to talk with a lawyer who’d taken the exam was helpful in studying for the exam and helped her process her own test anxiety, Estes said. 

As exam time draws nearer, Bordelon spends time reassuring students and calming jittery nerves.

“The smaller instances of stress that examinees experience are good because it’s their brains preparing their body for the physical endurance of taking the exam; it means they are ready,” he said.

Tim Feeley, 45, of Brunswick reached out to Bordelon about two weeks before the September exam.

“I was freaking out, especially about the essay portion of the test,” said Feeley, who works for Gov. Janet Mills as a policy adviser. “Greg looked at my essays and really helped me with my mental state.”

Feeley, who passed, said that Maine Law made a good decision in creating Bordelon’s position in July 2019.

“The law school really stepped up and realized it’s not just about teaching during three years of law school,” he said. “It’s about three years of law school and the bar exam.”

Feeley and Estes both said that having an extra two months to study, since this year’s exam was delayed, was helpful, but both were concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 from taking the two-day test in a hotel conference room. However, once they arrived, the precautions put in place by the board of examiners, including social distancing, put them at ease and allowed them to focus on the exam. 

An improved bar passage rate could make Maine Law more attractive to students and help increase enrollment. This year, the school is ranked 122 out of 194 law schools, according to U.S. News and World Report. That ranking is based, in part, on the school’s bar passage rate.

It’s too soon to tell if the higher passage rate will persist and how an increase will affect Maine Law’s ranking, much less whether enrollment will grow because of it.

The credit for the increase in the bar passage rate goes to the students, Saufley said, “who worked so hard for more than three years to achieve this objective indicator of achievement.”

Correction: A previous version of this story and photo captions misspelled Kayla Estes’ last name.