Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

California Mulls Easing Bar Exam Cutoff Score

CA Bar ExamFaced with a record high number of people flunking the state bar exam, California is considered lowering the score required for passage.

The Golden State has long been known for the difficulty of its exam. But in recent years the pass rate has plummeted to historic lows, with almost two-thirds of takers failing the February 2017 test. Results for the July 2016 exam – with a woeful 43 percent pass rate – were not much better.

Those numbers are abysmal, says Above the Law blogger Staci Zaretsky:

“[O]verall passage rate for the February 2017 exam was 34.5 percent, while the passage rate for first-time takers was 39 percent,” she writes here. “The passage rate for retakers was a shockingly low 33 percent.”

And the actual picture is even gloomier, says Zaretsky, because the reported percentages only include those who finished the exam, not ones who started but quit before completion.

“This is a real problem,” she says.

Law Deans Push for Lower Cut Rate

Some observers lay the blame on law schools, which they say are accepting too many poorly qualified students. Others point to the study habits of millennials, who they say were raised on the internet and lack skills in memorization and test-taking.

But legal educators and state legislators say the problem is the so-called “cut score.” In California, takers must score 144 to pass the multistate portion of the bar exam. That’s higher than every other state except Delaware. The median score nationwide is 135.

New York, by contrast, requires only a multistate score of 133. If California had the same cut score, an additional 1,789 individuals who failed the exam in July and February would now be licensed.

In light of this, 20 law deans from ABA-accredited law schools in California have pushed to lower the pass score. The Assembly Judiciary Committee has joined the effort. The state Supreme Court, which has the final word, has ordered the state bar to complete a study and report back by the end of 2017.

Law Grads Feeling The Pain

Meanwhile, those suffering the most are would-be lawyers with the bad fortune of applying for bar admission in California instead of New York or practically any other state.

“Graduates who fail face losing jobs already started, not getting jobs that were promised, debt, embarrassment and more debt,” says this story in the Los Angeles Times. “Simply taking the

exam again costs more than $700, and add to that the cost of further bar review classes, living expenses in the meantime and income lost.”

The odds of passing the exam increase for those who decide to take it again. But even the ones who are ultimately successfully end up paying a price.

“After each attempt, these graduates do not learn to be better lawyers, they simply learn how to beat the test,” says the LA Times. “And the damage done from the initial failure can be great. In addition to the financial costs, they may find themselves timed out of promising professional opportunities that never reappear. Finally, there are the emotional and psychological costs that are possibly the most overwhelming consequence of even one failed attempt.”

Are you a recent law graduate or bar exam taker? What are your thoughts?


· Above the Law

· Los Angeles Times

· ABA Journal · Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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