Does California have too many lawyers, or too few?
by Dan Walters
The passage rate on the State Bar’s July test, released in November, plummeted to an all-time low of 40.7 percent, which Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, described as “frightening” last week.
California’s minimum score on the test is the nation’s second highest and as the passage rate has declined year after year, critics have called for lowering the “cut score,” as it’s known, thereby allowing more law school graduates to be admitted to the bar.
The loudest complaints come from deans of the state’s 21 accredited law schools, some of which are in danger of losing their accreditation because too few of their graduates are passing the State Bar’s exam.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has been cracking down on schools whose graduates have high failure rates. Losing accreditation would be an institutional death sentence.
Supreme Court Has Declined to Lower the Cut Score
“We recognize that some critics blame us for this situation,” three of those deans wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed article last month, after the latest passage rate was announced.
“It is more plausible to hypothesize that the bar exam has grown anachronistic, a test designed for a paper-and-pencil generation now inflicted on a smartphone generation. Memorizing large amounts of information and regurgitating it over a few days has little predictive power for lawyering competence today. Recent graduates may well be worse than their predecessors at this skill set — likely we all are — but they may be at least as good at other problem-solving skills lawyers need.”
So far, however, the state Supreme Court, which has the ultimate say over the issue, has declined to lower the cut score, awaiting results of two State Bar studies. One assesses California law school students, and the other weighs what skills contemporary lawyers need and how those traits can be tested.
Not Much Enthusiasm for Change in the Legal Community
While the law school deans push for lowering the State Bar’s cut score, there’s not much enthusiasm for change in the larger legal community.
When the State Bar conducted an on-line survey of its members about the issue, nearly 80 percent voted in favor of leaving the cut score at its present level.
One might surmise that those who have passed the test and are practicing law aren’t interested in having even more attorneys competing for legal business.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.