A student studies at UC Berkeley’s law school in Berkeley, Calif. on Oct. 9. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times) The State Bar of California has done it again, failing nearly 60% of the law school graduates who took the exam in July. It was the worst outcome since 1951. And yet thousands of these graduates, if they had taken the test in virtually any other state, would now be embarking on their legal careers instead of having to prepare to take it again in February.
The score needed to pass the California bar exam — called the “cut score” — is 144. We are the only state to set its cut score above 140 other than Delaware (with 172 applicants, compared with California’s 8,071). This is profoundly out of line with the rest of the country. Nationwide, the median score needed to pass is 135.
In New York, the state with a legal practice most like California’s in scale and complexity, the cut score is 133. Among graduates of ABA-accredited law schools there, 83% passed the state bar exam the first time they took it. In California, though, the comparable rate was 64%. That likely would be 20 percentage points higher if our cut score matched New York’s. Is New York inflicting on its populace thousands of unqualified lawyers through its lower cut score? We have yet to hear of it.
The state bar, the California Legislature and the California Supreme Court — which has ultimate authority to set the cut score — need to bring rationality to our bar exam by aligning it with the standards of comparable states.
As law school deans, we witness the harm done to our graduates and to the legal profession by this unjustifiably high cut score. Those failing the bar risk losing their jobs. For the still unemployed, finding work becomes far harder. Even those who keep their jobs wear their bar performance as an albatross around their necks. The financial consequences are considerable: thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs for additional exam fees and review courses, often adding to already considerable indebtedness. […]