DePaul College of Law lags with bar passage, rankings as Dean faces review

DePaul University College of Law (COL) has gone five years under the command of Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea, over which time the school’s national ranking has fallen, distinguished professors have exited and its students have graduated less and less prepared to practice law.

Now Rosato Perea, who stepped into her role in 2015 as the COL was recovering from the 2008 financial crash, is taking her track record to the university for an extension of her contract. An extension would likely make her the longest-serving COL Dean in recent memory and the fourth since 2010.

In a memorandum addressed to Interim Provost Salma Gahnem obtained by The DePaulia, Rosato Perea, who is in her late 50s, made her case to be retained, highlighting her victories since she took the reigns of the college in 2015. Among them she sites the “student trifecta,” an improved academic program, financial sustainability, mission focused initiatives and leveraging DePaul’s COL alumni network.

“My commitment to the De-Paul community and our students’ success is unwavering,” Rosato Perea wrote. “We know where we need to go, and we are well on the path. I would be honored to lead our community for the next five years and experience the law school’s and university’s successes together.”

According to the memo, Rosato Perea said she hopes DePaul will re-enter the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of the top 100 Law Schools in the nation. In order to do that, she will need to lean heavily on the “student trifecta” numbers — which includes admissions statistics like median GPA and LSAT scores, job placement figures and the school’s bar passage rate — things she says she has improved.

Bringing the COL back into the top 100 of national law school rankings would require a reversal of some current trends. Over Perea Rosato’s first term as Dean between 2015 and 2018, DePaul has fallen from No. 111 in the US. News and World Report Rankings to No. 132.

The Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG) currently ranks DePaul 147th among the top 200 law schools, 158th in median GPA (data from Fall 2018) and 147th in first-time bar passage.

With DePaul’s position in the largest employment market for lawyers outside of New York City and Washington, D.C., the COL sits just inside the top half (93rd) of all 200 ranked programs for employment at the time of graduating.

For employment within 10 months of graduation the COL falls to 139th in the national rankings. When you account for the 4 percent increase Rosato Perea boasts in a promotional graphic Rosato Perea shared with The DePaulia, the COL would jump into the high 120s.

Among all law schools in Illinois, theILRG has DePaul ranked second-to-last, just above Southern Illinois University.

Bar passage rates, and how they compare to the statewide bar passage rate, are a key element in evaluating how effective the COL is in educating its students. For DePaul, first-time bar passage rates have taken a sharp dive since Rosato Perea’s deanship began.

Prior to Rosato Perea’s arrival, the COL saw its students pass the Illinois Bar Exam at a moderately higher rate than the state average. Between 2012 and 2014, a steady 86-87 percent of DePaul COL graduates who sat for the exam passed, according to DePaul’s 509 Information Report to the American Bar Association (ABA).

Following the 2015 bar exam where bar passage for both the COL and the state average saw a roughly six-point slip, DePaul’s first-time pass rate cratered to 71 percent in 2016 and continued to fall.

By 2018, just 60 percent of DePaul COL graduates passed the bar exam on their first attempt.

Rosato Perea said the COL has seen improvement with the class of students who sat for the exam in July of 2019, as an extra 7.5 percent of test takers passed. The 2019 bar passage data has not yet been released by the ABA and The De-Paulia was unable to confirm that number.

“The prior decreases are attributable to some extent to the national decline in bar passage rates between 2015-2018, corresponding to significant changes in the bar exam itself,” Rosato Perea told the DePaulia in an email. She did not acknowledge The DePaulia’s request for an interview.

Other universities have seen some declines in bar passage rates, too. NIU, where Rosato Perea formerly served as dean from 2009-2015, currently has a bar passage rate of 59 percent, down from the mid 70s just two years earlier. In 2018, Loyola Chicago and the University of Illinois had first-time passage rates of roughly 80 percent or better. John Marshall Law School just edged out DePaul’s 2018 figure with 61 percent.

Rosato Perea says the recent increase at DePaul is due to new programs to help students pass the bar exam and a new Bar Director, Professor Jamie Kleppetch, who was hired in July of 2018. She says it will take a few years for these programs to realize their full value.

COL professor Donald Hermann says adding bar prep courses to the curriculum isn’t a foolproof strategy and doesn’t address the underlying problem.

“[Bar Preparation Courses] may help a few students in mastering exam-taking, but the problem is the mass of students, they don’t really have the background in terms of the substance of the law,” Hermann said.

Terrie Sullivan, 2017 COL graduate, said she didn’t feel that the bar preparation courses she took while at DePaul proved to be particularly helpful on the exam itself. The state average for first-time bar passage did fall over 2015-18; however, DePaul’s significant decline has outpaced the statewide attrition by a healthy margin. Each year, beginning in 2016, the college’s differential with the state average grew closer and closer to double-digits.

In 2018, DePaul’s COL was more than 15 points behind the state average. Assuming the program did add 7.5 percent to their pass rate in 2019 — and students from other law schools adjust to the new bar exam — that differential is likely to stay around 10 percent.

Fixing that gap will be a priority in the short term as the American Bar Association tightened its regulations on law schools last year. In May 2017, the ABA passed measures requiring all law schools to have 75 percent of the schools’ test takers pass the exam within two years and will no longer allow exceptions for schools within 15 percent of their state average.

DePaul has also lost some of its distinguished professors from the COL. A 2015 study of scholarly impact among law faculties around the country ranked DePaul in the top third of U.S. law schools, measuring the number of law journal citations by tenured faculty.

“DePaul faculty continue to be distinctive in the breadth and quality of their scholarship,” Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea said in a blog post to the COL Website, just a few months after taking the job. “It’s great to see that distinction recognized nationally!”

Nationally distinguished professors like Brian Havel, Andrew Gold and Terry Smith have all left the university since Perea’s arrival. Smith’s exit came on the heels of a civil rights lawsuit he filed against the COL and Perea and ultimately settled out of court. For students like Terrie Sullivan, she says it was distinguished professors like Terry Smith who had a nationally renowned expertise that made her feel prepared for life after law school.

Ella Lee also contributed to this report.