Last year, just 62 percent of first-time test takers passed the California bar exam, compared with 83 percent in New York.
And only 51 percent of the graduates of the University of California Hastings College of the Law passed the state’s exam in July 2016. That result, the school’s dean, David L. Faigman, wrote the California Committee of Bar Examiners last December, was “outrageous and constitutes unconscionable conduct on the part of a trade association that masquerades as a state agency.”
“The cut score is almost everything,” said Robert Anderson, a professor of corporate law at Pepperdine School of Law in California, who did a study of the 10 most difficult state exams in 2013. That study concluded that “California’s is probably the most difficult” in the country.
“If California changed its minimum score to 133, which is the same as New York’s, then I would say, California’s is easy,” he added. (Delaware’s passing score is 145.)
Proponents for keeping the score argue that state bars have an ethical obligation to protect citizens from ill-prepared lawyers.
But deans of law schools, which have been buffeted by declining enrollments, say setting the bar licensure standard so high serves only to shield the profession by keeping out large numbers of qualified lawyers.
In February, 20 deans at American Bar Association-accredited California law schools wrote the state Supreme Court asking it to set a lower passing score. A state legislative hearing considered the issue, and a study was set in motion. The state Supreme Court soon stepped in to assert its authority over the exam. In amendments adopted on June 21 but released this week, the court said that it “must set the passing score of the examination.”
Cathal Conneely, a spokesman for the court, said on Thursday that the justices would decide on the cut score after they received and considered the bar examiner committee report.