California Law School Deans Push Back at the Bar Exam

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 22, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the closing minutes of the Super Bowl this year, the Falcons sealed their fate when they made a critical mistake: they punted.

To punt -- such a well-known expression you don't have to know football to know what it means -- is to put off taking action in the face of a difficult situation. For the Falcons, it meant to delay going forward when they were winning the game. In retrospect, they lost the game because of that untimely decision.

The same could be said for California law schools faced with the lowest bar pass rates in 32 years. Rather than move forward with changes in legal education, they have asked the State Bar to lower the minimum score for the bar exam. It is a critical moment for legal education in California.

What's the Score?

For now, the law schools have the attention of the state Supreme Court. Twenty law school deans signed a letter to the high court this month, asking the justices to change the "cut score."

Responding in an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing, State Bar executive director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said there was "no good reason" for California's higher standard.

"For many years it was seen as a point of pride that it was such a rigorous exam but perhaps it's time now to look again," she said. "Is it doing what we want? Is it a fair exam?"

California's bar exam has long been one of the toughest in the nation, currently holding the second-highest cut score in the country. The July 2016 results were the lowest in decades, and another step down in a three-year slide. From 2010 to 2013, however, bar pass rates were increasing each year.

Wrong Call?

Professor Robert Anderson, of Pepperdine University School of Law, says that the bar exam is not the problem. He said law schools are the problem.

"The reason bar pass rates have declined in recent years (in most states) is that law schools are filling their classes with students with lower and lower 'predictors' (LSAT and GPA), and lower-ranked schools are losing their better students in the transfer market," he said.

Due to economic pressures in recent years, law school enrollments dropped by about 30 percent nationwide. Anderson said that many law schools lowered admission standards, when they should have cut faculty.

"The schools keep packing in less qualified students because they have too many tenured faculty salaries to pay relative to current applicant demand," Anderson said.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the Recorder that she was concerned about the low bar pass rates, but will wait for scores on the July exam when the test is administered over two days instead of three.

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