For more than three decades, California has clung to one of the nation’s toughest testing standards for law school students hoping to practice law in the most populous state in the country.
But this month, the California Supreme Court, which oversees the state bar, agreed to lower the passing score for the exam, a victory for law school deans who have long hoped the change would raise the number of Black and Latino people practicing law.
Forty percent of California’s population is white, 60% are people of color. But 68% of California lawyers are white, and only 32% are people of color, according to a new report by the State Bar of California.
The Black Lives Matter movement also might have influenced the court.
The court did not give the law deans and students what they asked for: a remote bar exam in September and the right to practice law permanently with a diploma but no test.
Chemerinsky said he was not surprised the court refused to grant graduates a complete “diploma privilege.” California, unlike other states, has law schools that are unaccredited or accredited only by the state. Some of those schools have a bar exam pass rate of less than 10%, the dean said.
The spread of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the July bar exam, and the court had to decide when the next exam would be held and whether it could be taken remotely. The court took that opportunity to address the bar exam score.
“The cut score issue has been around a long time, and the court has never stopped thinking about it,” said a source who was not authorized to speak publicly but was familiar with the decision-making process.
Some speculated that the results of the February bar exam may also have influenced the court.
In February, a time when many graduates who failed the bar the first time retake it, only 26.8% of all test takers passed.
Of the first-time test takers from law schools accredited by the American Bar Assn., considered the top schools in the state, 51.7% of white graduates passed, compared with 5% of Black grads, 32.6% of Latinos and 42.2% of Asians.
Whether the exam is culturally biased has been a question for law journals over the years, and critics have written that it fails to measure the real abilities required to be good lawyers.
Quintanilla, who also chairs the Assn. of American Law Schools section on the empirical study of legal education, said Black people and Latinos generally do worse than white counterparts on “high-stakes” standardized tests, such as the SAT.