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Three years of law school (and the fat bills that go along with it) are just a primer. This is the season for the California bar exam — the nastiest entrance test for lawyers in the nation, with a flunk rate that sends shudders through nervous would-be attorneys.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson flunked it, as did current Attorney General Jerry Brown, both after graduating from prestigious law schools. Even former Stanford University law school dean Kathleen Sullivan, one of the nation's pre-eminent constitutional scholars, famously flunked a version for practicing attorneys two years ago before surviving it her second time through.
"Obviously it's hanging over my head every day," says Piano, who is preparing for the upcoming tests on July 24 by avoiding her stressed-out classmates. "I feel like I've worked so hard and had so much invested in my education. I feel like if I don't pass, I'll be really disappointed for more than myself, with all the support I've had from my family and my friends."
Overall, the odds of passing the California bar exam are dismal compared to the rest of the country. In February, the most recent exam results produced an abysmally low pass rate of just 36 percent; the national pass rate in 2006 for all states was 67 percent. California's rate last July, when most aspiring lawyers take the exam after finishing law school, was 52 percent — above only the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to figures compiled by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
The carnage after every bar exam isn't leaving the state short on lawyers by any means. There are still more than 200,000 licensed lawyers in California. But California's rigorous standard for passing the exam — coupled with the fact the state allows graduates of even fly-by-night law schools to take and pass the test — has ensured a bumpy road to getting that license.
California's tough bar exam has been a subject of debate for decades, and it gained renewed attention in 2005 when Sullivan failed what is called the practicing attorneys exam on her first try.
Sullivan, who was already licensed to practice in New York and Massachusetts and had appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, took the California exam after leaving Stanford and joining a Bay Area law firm. But the exam for lawyers licensed in other states who want to practice in the California courts is tougher in California than elsewhere.
"I was in good company — many brilliant attorneys at the best firms had the same experience with the attorneys exam," says Sullivan, who was later sworn into the state bar by Chief Justice Ronald George when she passed on her second try. "I'm glad they give you a mulligan on the California bar."
In fact, one of the reasons for the low pass rate in California is that the state is one of the few to allow aspiring lawyers to take the exam as many times as they want. The pass rate for "repeaters," as they are called, is much lower than for first-time test takers, typically students fresh out of law school. California also sets a higher threshold for passing the exam than most other states.
But perhaps the most significant factor in California's hefty rate of flunkers is that it is one of the only states to license lawyers who graduate from law schools that are not accredited by the American Bar Association. This means anyone who gets their law degree from a correspondence school or law school without ABA credentials can still take and pass the California bar.
Graduates from law schools such as Santa Clara, Boalt Hall or Stanford pass the exam at much higher rates than students who come from non-ABA approved schools. (Roughly a quarter of the more than 13,000 law school graduates who took the test in 2006 were from non-ABA approved schools.)
In effect, California provides an open path to getting a law license but throws in an obstacle course to protect against too many unqualified lawyers flooding the state and putting consumers at risk. Gail Murphy, the State Bar's senior executive in charge of admissions, points out that the pass rate in California for students from ABA accredited law schools isn't that much different than other states.
"California is the most permissive in terms of allowing people to take the bar exam," adds Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. "But the presence of those graduates that don't meet agreed upon national standards has had an interesting side-effect."
Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law, is more blunt.
"We've got a lot of hack people taking the exam who you really wouldn't want to pass," says Little, whose law school is ABA accredited. "We've got enough hacks."
Still, even for students from well-regarded law schools, the exam is daunting. Hans Christian Ruschke, another Santa Clara law school grad prepping for the July test, says he is well aware that roughly a third of his classmates will fail.
"I look around the classroom and say, 'Statistically, we're not all going to do it on the first try,'" says Ruschke, who admits getting stressed out these days "in phases."
For the 25-year-old Piano, who aspires to go into public interest law, the possibility of failing the test drives her to study 8 to 10 hours per day. She deals with the stress by running, and the light at the end of the tunnel is a trip to Costa Rica two days after the exam is finished.
When the results are announced this fall, she hopes she will not be another casualty of California's bar exam.
"If I don't pass," she says, "I'll just have to dive back into it. I'm not one to quit."