Exam Is a Real Bar to Aspirants

Dec. 7, 2003

After graduating in May 2002 from Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law in the top third of his class, Stephen Gizzi looked forward to hanging a shingle and taking on his first clients. But the former Benicia city councilman had a big problem shared by many law school graduates in California. He could not pass the Bar exam.

Rather than spending the past year and a half building a fledgling law practice, Gizzi has been studying and re-studying. He took the exam twice, each time failing. These worries were not on his mind back in law school, where his classes included one taught by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Luckily for Gizzi, he received good news from the State Bar of California right before Thanksgiving. He had passed on his third attempt.

Gizzi was one of 7,788 applicants who spent three days in July answering tricky multiple choice and essay questions. While Gizzi and 3,847 others can now add "Esquire" to their business cards, most of those test takers cannot. The 51 percent failure rate was the highest for a July exam since 1986, reinforcing California's reputation as the toughest state to get a legal license.

The 2,422 repeat test takers like Gizzi faced even longer odds. Only 18 percent passed. It is difficult to find good statistics on how many Bar applicants never pass. But it is clear that many prospective lawyers take the Bar exams over and over without success, creating an entire class of unlicensed law school graduates.

Repeated failure damages one's self-esteem, and can delay or even destroy career plans. Gizzi was able to support himself because he is a partner in a government contracting business. But he had hoped to open his law practice much sooner. "It was probably the most frustrating experience of my life," Gizzi said, referring to the time he spent waiting to pass the Bar.

The Bar exam can be especially agonizing because applicants have spent three years immersed in difficult study. Many have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in loans. When test takers fail, they must wait another six months to retake the exam. In the meantime, they not only have to support themselves and make loan payments but also study the material all over again.

Those law school graduates who never pass the exam cannot practice law or call themselves an attorney.

Jane Ford has given up on trying to pass the Bar exam after three tries, even though she racked up $68,000 in student loans while she studied at the New College of California School of Law in San Francisco. "I passed some sections with flying colors but then failed others," she said.

Ford did not even bother to take the test in July. After three straight misses, she could not stomach another round. "It was the first time in my life that I ever failed," she said.

The 50-year-old Foster City resident feels both angry and distressed because she believes she would have made a talented lawyer. She is also broke, having invested her own money in addition to the federal student loans. Three prep courses cost between $1,800 and $3,200 each. Ford has not been able to pay back any loans and gets by with substitute teaching and "mooching." Attempts to get work as a legal secretary in the Bay Area and in Las Vegas have failed so far. "It's like a house that's been on the market too long," she said of her unsuccessful job search.

Alumni of her law school, which is not accredited by the American Bar Association, have much lower-than-average pass rates. In July 2002, 50 New College graduates took the exam, including 19 for the first time, and four passed. The following February, 37 repeaters tested, and eight passed. New College's pass rate for the two exams was 14 percent.

Some law school graduates who fail the Bar exam have gone through similar periods of frustration but have ultimately found good jobs. Donna Bratton-Kearns graduated from Stanford in 1972 with degrees in biology and Spanish, followed by a master's degree in public health from UCLA in 1980.

Eleven years later, Bratton-Kearns enrolled in John F. Kennedy University Law School in Walnut Creek, which like New College, is not accredited by the American Bar Association, though both are accredited by the State Bar.

JFK's night classes were appealing because Bratton-Kearns had young children. She entered wanting just the education. She had no plans to ever enter a courtroom. But once she started, she changed her mind.

In retrospect, Bratton Kearns may wish she never bothered. Over a 31/2-year period after graduating in 1995, she took the exam seven times and never passed. Her scores never improved. "It's a mystery to me and to the school," she said.

Despite her degrees from prestigious universities, she has never been much of a test taker. "I always got everywhere on my grades," she said.

Luckily, her husband supported the family while she went through law school, studied for the Bar exam and then studied again and again. Like Jane Ford, Bratton-Kearns eventually decided to move on.

But the Pleasanton resident's story has a happy ending. Bratton-Kearns found a job with Valley Community Health Center, a health and social services agency. She helps the clinic with quality assurance and compliance, where her law degree comes in handy.

"Some people who might do well in law don't do well on the Bar exam," said Hindi Greenberg, whose company, Lawyers in Transition, helps point attorneys toward other careers. Based on her experience as a career adviser, she believes that most unlicensed lawyers in California find work in related fields. Along with Bratton-Kearns' compliance work, popular tracks include performing research for law firms, reviewing contracts at an insurance company, or working for a legal publisher, Greenberg said.

Many lower-tier law schools downplay how hard it is to find fulfilling and lucrative work, even with a license, Greenberg said.

Fred Deltorchio, the chief of police in Hercules, realized law school was not a golden goose early on in his studies at JFK. He passed the Bar on his first try, and practiced law for a while on the side, but ultimately stayed in policing.

"For everyone who is making a fortune, there are 100 who are wondering how they will pay their rent on the office this month," Deltorchio said. "A lot of people who go to law school think that balloons will fall from the ceiling and a Ferrari will show up in their driveway."

Yet many lawyers make more than six figures. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average compensation of an attorney in California last year was $121,790, compared with a national average of $105,890.

Gizzi, the newly licensed Benicia lawyer, believes that the State Bar keeps too many lawyers from practicing. "The Bar association is using that test to artificially limit the number of lawyers," he said. "It's hard to get sympathy for lawyers, but the reality is that market forces should determine how many people are practicing."

The State Bar disagrees that it is limiting competition. The test is hard, it acknowledges, but only because consumers must be protected from incompetent lawyers. "We have a very democratic approach to the study of law," said Kathleen Beitiks, a Bar spokeswoman. "We start cracking down when you get to taking the Bar exam."

The pass rate is low because virtually anybody can take the exam, according to Gayle Murphy, the State Bar official whose office oversees the admissions process. She pointed out that usually about 70 percent of graduates from ABA-accredited law schools pass the July test in California. That falls in the same range as recent Bar exam pass rates in nearby states like Oregon (71 percent) or Nevada (61 percent), where the test is limited to graduates of ABA-accredited law schools.

The State Bar encourages law schools to be candid about the exam's difficulty so students do not have false hopes. At law schools accredited by the state, but not the ABA, first-year law students must pass a "baby Bar" that weeds out some students.

When graduates of Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco fail, the school encourages them to keep taking it. "We have resources here at the law school to help make sure they are studying properly and figure out what went wrong the first time," said Susanne Aronowitz, an assistant dean for law career services.

Golden Gate is accredited by the ABA and had a 57 percent pass rate among first-time takers last July and a 26 percent pass rate for repeaters. Scores in July of this year have not yet been broken down by school.

For repeaters, Aronowitz tries to think about "stopgap measures," so they can pay for groceries, rent and keep studying. Popular stopgaps include working as a paralegal or in legal research. She emphasizes that failing the Bar carries very little stigma. "There are fabulous lawyers who didn't pass on the first try," she said.

Aronowitz likes to point out that Pete Wilson failed the Bar exam three times, then passed and went on to become mayor of San Diego, a U.S. senator and a two-term governor. Other big guns in state politics, like former governor and current Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and former Attorney General Dan Lungren, also failed the exam the first time they took it.

Jonathan Roselin, now the principal of Pleasant Hill Middle School, also failed the exam on his first try. Ten years ago, he was bored with teaching and went back to school at JFK. He passed the second time he took the exam, practiced a bit without quitting his teaching job, but then decided to stay in education, where he rose to principal.

He is glad he passed but regrets not seeing more of his kids while he spent his evenings in law school. And he is still paying off $15,000 in loans.

Teri Cannon, the dean of JFK, said 75 percent of its students who want to practice can pass the Bar if they take it enough times. She was hired 10 months ago to help raise the school's passage rate, she said. The pass rate has faltered recently. Last July, only two out of 26 first timers and three out of 49 repeaters passed.

Cannon defends the school, saying that it provides opportunities for working professionals to better themselves, regardless of whether they pass the Bar exam. She recounted the tale of one student whose persistence paid off. "He passed it on his 13th attempt," she said.