California Legislators Want an Easier Bar Exam

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California's bar exam is known as one of the hardest, if not the hardest, exams in the country. But that reputation could be fading. In 2015, the state decided to drop the exam's infamous third day, starting this summer. Now, state legislators want to make the bar even easier -- maybe even passable.

Last week, lawmakers sent a letter to the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, urging her to address the state's declining bar passage rates by temporarily lowering the score needed to practice in the Golden State.

Responding to California's Struggling Bar Passage Rate

Passing the California bar exam has never been easy, but recently, the exam seems to have become too much for many bar takers. Last year, the July exam's pass rate dropped to a 32-year low. While over 63 percent of test-takers passed in 1994, the highest rate, and more than 55 percent passed the July exam in 2013, last year's summer exam saw only 43 percent pass. If you narrow the results to only first-time takers, just 62 percent passed.

Now, eight members of the Assembly Committee on the Judiciary are urging the California courts to reconsider the bar's high standards. The letter questions whether California needs such a high "cut score," or minimum score required to pass the exam, when it is "unclear that there is a rational basis, let alone close evidence-based connection, between California's high cut scores and protecting the public." Those scores, the letter notes, were adopted in 1986 and have not been reviewed in the past 31 years.

The High Cost of a Failed Exam

"Whether the cut score is arbitrary or not, the impact of that score is severe," the legislators write. The potential loss of earnings from law students who have to wait to re-take the exam could exceed $43 million a year, they note. And that's not counting the impact of students who never take the bar, deciding to work elsewhere instead of risking it on the California exam.

The bar exam's difficulty, too, has affected programs like legal aid, which suffers from a lack of attorneys, and the reputation of California's law schools. "These consequences are unquestionably serious, negatively impacting prospective attorneys, law schools, consumers, and indeed the entire California economy."

The Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye instructed the California State Bar in February to start studying the issue and report back by this December. But that timeline isn't fast enough for the legislators. "Applicants, law schools, and the general public can't afford to wait a year or more for action as a result of such studies," they write. They're asking the state supreme court to step in and temporarily reduce the cut score while the bar researches the issue further.

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