Due in part to COVID-19 restrictions, the nationwide rise of the Black Lives Matter, and numerous demands for racial equality and social justice the California Supreme Court voted to lower the qualifying passing score for the state bar exam from 1440 to 1390. The existing point structure of the test has been widely criticized as culturally exclusive, with supporters of the lower score hoping it will result in more diversity in California’s legal industry. However, critics of lowering the passing score worry that the decision could affect the quality of legal service available in the state.
The traditional methods of administering the California bar exam have been in question since the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the state. The test is typically administered in person, and generally in large groups. With an inability to gather in the groups required to take the test due to COVID-19, remote administration of the bar exam has been approved. Additionally, the state Supreme Court has “allowed for law school graduates to work temporarily under supervision with provisional licenses during the pandemic,” according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. Typically, graduates must pass the bar exam before they are permitted to start practicing law.
This restructuring of the California bar exam, coupled with growing social movements throughout the country, have reinvigorated the debate about the fairness of the test (from a cultural perspective). Statistics show that — because of educational and economic inequality, along with the effects of stereotypes surrounding test performance — people of color have lower passing rates than white law students. The Los Angeles Times reported: “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.” Furthermore, “19.5% of white test takers never pass the bar even after multiple attempts. By contrast... 46.9% of Black test takers and 30.5% of Latinos never pass.” The lower passing score decision is expected to change these numbers and promote more diversity of practicing legal professionals in California.
So, will the lower passing score affect legal services in California? Not likely. “‘There is absolutely no evidence that shows having a higher score makes for better lawyers,’ said UCLA School of Law Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin.” Mnookin, in her statement to the Los Angeles Times, added: “‘There is significant evidence that it [a higher score] requirement reduces the diversity of the bar.’”
As a lawyer who has practiced personal injury litigation in the Coachella Valley for decades, I have often taken note of the small disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic lawyers that I have had the opportunity to work with or against in my law practice.
It remains to be seen whether the lowering of the California State Bar pass rate will result in a greater influx of diverse ethnic groups joining the ranks of California lawyers. I sincerely hope that goal is the result.
In all my years of practice, I have never found that race, religion, or color determines the caliber of law practiced by attorneys of color. As for me, I would celebrate a more diverse California State Bar population.