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California Bar Exam Pass Rate Drops Below 50%

By a MetNews Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

 Fewer than half of those who took the July 2003 general California bar exam passed, the State Bar reported.

A total of 7,788 applicants—the highest number to sit for the exam since 1980—took the test and 3,848, or 49.4 percent, passed. The rate is down from last year’s 50.5 percent rate, and is the lowest since 1986 for the exam given following spring graduation, according to figures released late Friday.

The test is given twice each year to law school graduates and a handful of others who are eligible to sit for the test. The full pass list was published in yesterday’s MetNews and is now available on the State Bar’s website at www.calbar.org.

Passing the exam does not by itself guarantee admission to the bar. Prospective lawyers must also pass a separate professional responsibility exam, receive a positive determination of moral character, and show that they have not been reported by local district attorneys for being in arrears in child support payments.

Successful applicants who meet all of those criteria may attend oath ceremonies, which will be held in various locations  around the state, or may make private arrangements to be sworn in immediately by a state court judge or commissioner, a Court of Appeal or Supreme Court justice, a notary public, a shorthand court reporter, a member of the Legislature, a county officer or a member of the State Bar Board of Governors.

Applicants in the military may be sworn in by their commanding officers, and applicants in foreign countries may take the oath from the U.S. consul.

Pass rates are typically much lower for applicants who have taken the test before and higher for first-timers.

Of the 5,364 first-time applicants, 63.5 percent passed. Of the 2,424 repeaters, 18.3 percent passed.

Jerome Braun, State Bar senior executive for admissions, commented in a release that one contributing factor to the lower pass rate may be the change in the “Do Not Grade Policy.” Previously, at the end of the examination period, applicants had the option of requesting that their exam answers not be graded.

“In the past, approximately 25-30 applicants would formally file such a request,” Braun said. “Usually the request is due to illness or the realization that they were not adequately prepared.”

This year, however, the Committee of Bar Examiners said it eliminated the option because it was both difficult to administer and to ensure the security of the exam.

“Each group of applicants is unique and differs in ability and preparation,” said Braun, “and it’s not unusual to find differences in performance. The scores of the exam are scaled so that the difficulty remains constant from one test to the next.”

The pass rates also continue to be highest for students from law schools approved by the American Bar Association. Rates were 71.5 percent for first-timers who went to ABA-approved schools in California—up three percentage points from last year—65.6  percent for graduates of ABA schools in other states, 25.6 percent for graduates of non-ABA-approved schools that are accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners, and 14.9 percent for applicants from unaccredited schools.

Some applicants were not allotted to a law school because more than a year passed between graduation and the exam. Others studied with attorneys or judges and did not attend law schools, or took correspondence courses.

The examination is also administered in late February each year. Fewer applicants, many of whom have previously failed, take that exam and passage rates on it are usually lower.

In addition to the applicants passing the general bar examination, an additional 160 lawyers already admitted to practice in other states passed a two-day version of the test, including the essay and “performance” portion but omitting the multiple-choice Multistate Bar Examination. Lawyers must have actively practiced at least four years in another jurisdiction to take the attorney exam.