CA Supreme Court Gives a Hand Up to Future Bar Exam Takers. This is a Good Thing for All of Us.

By Rachel Puryear, Attorney at Law

This past Thursday, the California Supreme Court determined via a letter to the State Bar that the next Bar Exam would take place online, on October 5-6. This is for the purpose of having a socially-distanced Bar Exam. Normally, the Bar Exam takes place in a large room, with dozens or hundreds of test takers, something very risky during this pandemic.

Woman taking an online exam.

In the same letter, the CA Supreme Court also permanently lowered the passing score – from 1440 to 1390. This might not sound like much, but many test takers in previous exams fell between these two numbers, and failed the exam despite coming close to a passing score. Scoring 1390 on the California Bar Exam is still no easy feat, though.

The Court also directed the creation of a provisional licensure program under supervision for 2020 law school graduates, provided they pass a Bar Exam by June 1, 2022. Furthermore, registration for the next Bar Exam was extended through July 24.

No doubt, there will be lots of grumbling about these changes from some in the legal profession. There will be gripes of, ‘but I had to get a better score!’, ‘back in my day…’, ‘this will lower the quality of the profession’, ‘the exam has already been shortened, isn’t that enough’…and so forth. I know this grumbling will happen, because these are the same arguments the legal profession has had within itself for years around the Bar Exam. Arguments over how difficult or long the Bar Exam should be, or even whether it should exist at all.

In my humble opinion, I think it’s just fine to give this year’s exam takers a bit of a break. And no, I don’t think the permanently reduced score will harm the quality of the profession at all.

I graduated law school shortly after the 2008 economic collapse. A great many entry-level legal jobs had disappeared while I was late into law school. I remember what it’s like to finish education and try to launch a new career in the midst of major economic disaster. When I had my fresh Bar license, many employers were expecting new lawyers to work for free. Of course, that doesn’t pay the bills. I didn’t work for free, but I had to accept embarrassingly low pay, and I cobbled together various “gigs” because I could not find a regular job (yes, “gigs” also exist for lawyers). Law practice is difficult and stressful when cash flow is strong and plentiful; it is really hard to do your best work for a client when you are constantly preoccupied with, ‘can I make rent this month or will I be sleeping in the car soon’, ‘is there enough cash for groceries’, ‘is there enough gas in the car to get to the next gig’. And forget about paying down student loans when basics are hard enough to cover – so the debt balloons to the point where it’s difficult to ever pay it off.

Years later, things have definitely gotten better for me. I’m pleased – and fortunate – to say this. However, I’m also certain that I would be in a much stronger financial position today, if my initial career launch had been a lot less rocky and more opportunities were available. And it’s not just me – most of my friends from my graduating law school class are more or less in the same boat. Scientific studies like this one also show that graduates who graduate into difficult economies struggle more than those who graduate into favorable ones – not just in the obvious short term, but also in the long term. The former even have higher mortality rates than the latter.

In 2020, we are again the midst of major economic disaster. This year’s graduates will have a very tough road ahead of them. That is the case even if their Bar Exam is a little shorter and a little easier to pass than it was when most of the rest of the profession took it. What 2020 graduates need even more than a bone for the Bar Exam is opportunity, mentorship, and for many, some breaks on their student debt.

Furthermore, someone who finished college and then law school, and then scored 1390 on the California Bar Exam; probably isn’t a complete idiot who will commit severe malpractice. In fact, they are probably pretty damn capable and smart, worthy of practicing law, and someone who will serve their clients well – as much so as someone who scored 1440. Tests don’t measure intelligence anyway, they measure test-taking abilities. The legal profession also badly, desperately needs more diversity and equality of opportunity, .

So, esteemed members of the legal profession; I hope we can rise above the temptation for pearl-clutching around new graduates getting a little slack on the Bar Exam that we didn’t get. Let’s all of us take an example from the CA Supreme Court, and do what we can to mentor those new to the legal profession, so they can be their best for clients, and make us all proud. Thank you!


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