California won't make its attorney licensing exam easier

Becoming a lawyer in California isn't going to get easier after the state Supreme Court decided not to lower the minimum passing score on one of nation's toughest licensing exams for attorneys.

The justices on Wednesday acknowledged a drop in the percentage of people passing the test but said further study was needed to determine what might be behind the trend.

"Examination of these matters could shed light on whether potential improvements in law school admission, education and graduation standards and in State Bar testing for licensure ... could raise bar exam pass rates," the justices said.

For James Dunworth, 52, the decision means a little less room for error on the bar exam he took in July — his third attempt to pass the test. If the court had chosen to lower the passing score, it could have applied to his exam.

"I wanted a little breathing room," Dunworth said.

The Supreme Court in February ordered the State Bar to review whether the passing score was appropriate for evaluating the minimum competence of prospective attorneys. The move came after law school deans said in a letter to the court that California's high score unfairly penalizes students who would have become lawyers in other states.

California's minimum score of 144 is the second highest in the country. Most states have a minimum passing score of 135 or lower, according to state bar staff.

The passage rate on the July test fell from nearly 62 percent in 2008 to 43 percent in 2016, mirroring a national trend that has alarmed law school administrators and officials responsible for licensing attorneys.

Oregon and Nevada lowered their passing scores this year amid a similar decline.

In California, the proposal to lower the minimum score ignited a broader debate about racial diversity among attorneys, the quality of law schools and their students, and the skills lawyers need most.

"The declining passing rate has become a proxy for so many issues in the legal field," said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law in Los Angeles who has studied legal education and standards.

Law school deans in the state say California's higher minimum score is unjustified, does not produce better lawyers and disproportionately keeps African-American and Hispanic applicants from becoming attorneys.

Opponents of immediately lowering the score say law schools need to take a closer look at the caliber of their students and how well they are preparing them. The State Bar plans to study those issues.

Some experts say a dip in law school applications has forced institutions to accept applicants who have not done as well academically, and that might explain the drop in bar exam passing rates.

The State Bar of California last month gave the Supreme Court three options for the passing score.

One recommendation called for reducing the minimum score on an interim basis to a little over 141. A second called for a lower passing score of 139. The third option was to leave the score as is.

Modeling forecasts suggested the 141 score would have boosted the July 2016 pass rate by 8 percent, state bar officials said.

Desi Kalcheva, 26, who took the exam for the first time in July, said lowering the score made sense because law schools only give a brief introduction to many of the subjects on the exam, so students have a huge "knowledge gap" as they prepare for the test.

She said a lower passing score would have allowed every test taker to sleep "a little easier."

"But I guess we don't have the luxury," she said. Her results come out in November.