In Defence of the Students Who Failed the August 2014 Nigerian Bar Exam

When I was in secondary school, our Igbo teacher gave us a written test and the question was: ‘Gini ka e ji alu nwanyi?’. (If you are Igbo, please try answering the question in your head before reading on). When the answer sheets were distributed after grading, I saw that I got no point for the answer I gave despite being one of the best students in my class. Unwittingly, I had interpreted the question to mean: Reasons people marry and I answered accordingly citing procreation, companionship etc. It was after the ‘correction’ was made that I realized that the teacher had wanted us to list material gifts a groom’s family brings to the bride’s family during a traditional wedding ceremony. The answer would include, wine, yam, goat etc. – answers I readily knew. Now if you are Igbo, you will understand that my answer wasn’t wrong; the question could rightly be interpreted the way I did. To test this assertion, while writing this article, without giving away the reason for asking, I casually asked another Igbo, ‘Gini ka e ji alu nwanyi?’ and he replied, ‘Do you mean the gifts presented to the bride’s family or the reason people get married?’

I was a student of the Nigerian Law School between 2007 and 2008 and I did get a second class (lower division). But I also know a very bright student from my university – the best student in her class – who graduated with a high second class upper (just few points shy of first class)in my school but who had a pass in law school. Am I smarter than her? No, it would be folly on my part to think so. Various studies have shown that students’ performance taken over a long period of time, say five years, are a better reflection of their aptitude than exams, like the bar exam, that are written in the course of say, one week. Loss of a loved one, illness, misunderstanding a question etc are just some of the factors that can negatively impact the performance of an otherwise intelligent and hardworking student. I know this to be true because the student who had the second best result in my Law degree graduating class ( we were about one hundred and eighty) once had an E in a Commercial Law exam because she had misunderstood a particular question. If that were a bar exam, she would have probably failed because that one mistake could have determined her fate.

Since the recent Nigerian Bar exam results were released, I have been reading well-intentioned but fallacious and insensitive comments from people, especially attorneys, attributing the students’ failure to their indolence and variously labeling them dumbasses, prostitutes and social media addicts. While I appreciate what the law school is doing (and I do hold the institution in high esteem as it remains one of the very few institutions in Nigeria that has not been contaminated by corruption), I will point out what, in my opinion, could have been done differently so that a good intention doesn’t do injustice to otherwise diligent students who will now have to bear the stigma of not having passed the bar exam at the first attempt.

First, in trying to raise the standards of legal education in Nigeria, the Nigerian Law School should have ensured a smoother transition by systematically introducing changes in stages over say, a five-year period. People against reviewing the bar exam results have said that some students passed anyway and that 60% failure rate isn’t bad. ( I don’t know the exact statistics. I checked the Nigerian Law School website and found no information in that regard). But what was the pass rate for the previous class? Justice isn’t served when you judge members of a certain class in the same way but without making sure that the standard is relative to their predecessors. Though I have heard that the passage rate for the preceding class was ninety percent , from my experience with the Nigerian Law School, seventy percent pass rate sounds about right to me . Students from the previous class and this class were produced by the same universities and if there is such massive failure this time, it is a prima facie proof that the present class were judged much more strictly than their predecessors. In situations like this, it’s hard to sift facts through the rumors. But if, as I have read, that the time for MCQ was reduced to fifty minutes from one hour just few days to the exam, then we have to consider if the move was fair to these students who must have timed themselves for an hour while practicing MCQ questions. If the law school had made a plan where the time was gradually reduced over the course of five years, reducing the time each year by say two minutes and modifying the difficulty level accordingly, wouldn’t justice have been better served? And if it is true that the pass mark was increased this year from forty to fifty percent, how many of us who passed the bar exam when we did would have failed if we were among the recent crop of students? Again, wouldn’t an eventual increase of the passmark over a five year period for example 42% this year and eventually 50% by 2018 being a better way to go about it?

Second, even when I went to law school, I thought it unfair that a student’s overall performance was determined by the lowest score they had among the six courses. So if a student makes ninety percent in each of the five courses but for any of the reasons I mentioned earlier made a forty-five percent in one course, the law school classifies the student as having had a pass. Isn’t averaging all the results a better way to assess how much effort a student put into studying? Now I sincerely don’t know how Law School does their grading but this is the impression I had when I was there.

Third, with six campuses, being in one campus can be the difference between a student passing or failing the exam. I was in Abuja where I had only one room mate and we shared the bathroom with two others so I was privileged in that regard. But I know my classmates who were in Enugu campus weren’t as lucky and students in Lagos State campus had to deal with traffic. There is no way to ensure equitability in cases like this but we must acknowledge that variations in facilities etc impacts students one way or another. I read that some students this year had to live in uncompleted buildings while they were in law school.

Moreover, there is need for the Nigerian Law School to look more closely at the questions students are asked in the exams and how relevant they are to the skills required of a lawyer. When I took the bar exam in 2008, one of the questions was on merger and acquisition in Company Law ( I think). We were required to write down the steps to be taken in a merger and acquisition transaction. That needed a lot of cramming including knowing how many shareholders etc were required to approve the merger etc. It didn’t test a lawyer’s analytical or writing skills but mainly a lawyer’s ability to cram. I have no excuse for my neglecting that part of the curriculum during my studies but I was particularly hurt when after the bar exam, a friend in Enugu campus told me she did well in that question because their lecturer had hinted that it was going to be part of the bar exam questions. Would I have paid more attention to that part of the curriculum if I was in Enugus Campus? I think so. Would it have being the difference between a second class lower and a second class upper? I don’t know. But incidents like this show that justice is hardly attainable. And while we are at it, are the study materials in all the campuses even or are the books available per student in Abuja more than those in Bayelsa? Are students who can’t afford a computer slightly disadvantaged? Attempting to answer this questions can help us resist labeling every student that passed smart and every student that failed mediocre.

A few months ago, one of the current students of the Nigerian law school asked me for money to complete her law school fees. I regret that I didn’t have it to give her. This was a student who graduated from a private university where they are used to paying outrageous sum for their tuition. I wonder how some students from public schools whose parents are poor came up with the three hundred thousand naira required for their law school fees. How many of them borrowed the money? How many of them who are otherwise diligent failed and must now come up with excuses to give to their lenders as to why they failed the exam? I do hope that when they resit the exam, the Nigerian Law School will only charge them the minimum amount necessary to cover the Law School’s cost in tutoring, housing and organizing the exam.

And for those of us vilifying these students, I appreciate that the reproof was well-intentioned but haven’t we all experienced at some point in our lives a devastating failure despite our best efforts? I am not calling for a review of the exams as I generally appreciate what the current Director-General is trying to do. But I think it is not very appropriate to keep kicking these students who have been knocked down are still reeling from the pain and regrets of failure. Let us rather encourage them to dust off the feeling of despondency that comes with failure and try again. The truth is, in the long run, many of them will end up more successful than those who passed.

What the Nigerian Law School is trying to do in revamping legal education in Nigeria is commendable but I am of the opinion that they should make the changes one year at a time. A sudden overhaul in one year disproportionately impacts a class. I know that the Nigerian Law School is in capable hands and I have no doubt that they will make the necessary adjustments. Justice shouldn’t just be done but should undoubtedly be seen to be done.

Update: I posted an excerpt and a link to this post on an NBA(Nigerian Bar Association)forum and a Lecturer from the Nigerian Law School, Chudi Ojukwu, replied thus:
Dear Anne Anusionwu Mmeje I appreciate your well thought through essay on the Law School exams. Whilst many of your analysis has some validity, I wish to correct some misconception about the last exam.It would appear that there is believe that something was changed about the examination process that impacted the students negatively. This is not correct. The questions were of the same quality as many previous exams. The marking was similar as as in any previous assessment. As someone who has taught at the Law School for over 22yrs I can confirm these facts. The only change maybe is that in recent past before the results were release sometimes pass mark was lowered to about 25% instead of 40% to allow those that failed to pass. The pass mark of 40% is always communicated to the students when they register for the program. There is no duty to pass students that failed. I hope this helps your perspective. It was nice reading your essay“.

I appreciate his insightful contribution, as a Nigerian Law School insider, on the subject.

Further Update: Please see this press release by the Nigerian Law School issued after I published my post. More than 86% of the students who sat for the exam had a mere pass, a conditional pass or a fail.

(c) 2014 Anne Mmeje

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8 thoughts on “In Defence of the Students Who Failed the August 2014 Nigerian Bar Exam

  1. Really thought provoking comments. Sometimes critics should wait, think and read between the lines before passing judgement on issues. It also makes you wonder if examinations are really a true test of ones knowledge! From the way the final results are graded taking into consideration your lowest scores, i am really not amazed that there are so many failures. that definitely needs to be reviewed. an average of scores across the six papers makes better sense.

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    • I quite agree with you that averaging the scores may be a fairer way to go. And especially if the student didn’t fail any course. I just want to encourage those who failed to know that even when we are not calling for a review, some of us, ‘get it’ – that we understand that they may have worked very hard but still fall short of success. They shouldn’t worry, some of them will in future be far more successful than those who passed. I encourage them to accept the constructive criticisms and apply it in their resit.

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    • Thank you for your kind comment, Ukeni. I guess I have to say ‘Love you too’, lol! Those who failed the exam shouldn’t worry. I appreciate how hard some of them must have worked. I encourage them to take the constructive criticisms and move on. They will come out from the experience stronger and better. And in future, many of them will be far more successful than those who now think less of them.

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  2. Good job Anne. This is very insightful. You will be a very good prosecutor. Your analytical skills and articulation is commendable. You technically fine tuned the meaning and technical meaning of failure failure is success turned inside out.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. Yes, Henry, failure always gives one room to grow and I felt it was inappropriate to keep kicking our peers who were already down. I have known some failure in my life and I know one can always get back up stronger and better. Given how widely that post was read, I hope it helped encourage those who failed the exam to move on with the lessons they learnt.

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