By John Howard
February 23, 2017

California’s law-school students are failing the daunting State Bar exam in surprising numbers — and experts are trying to figure out why.

“It’s difficult to understand why the pass rate in California is so low,” said Barry Currier, the managing director of the American Bar Association’s legal education and admissions unit.

Traditionally, California’s grueling, multi-part bar exam has been a three-day test given twice annually in February and July. But this year, for the first time, it will become a two-day exam, starting in July. The shift from a three- to two-day test comes amid heightened concerns about the pass rate.

Since 1990, passage rates in July have varied widely, spiking as high as 64 percent in 1994. But they have slid steadily in recent years, from 56 percent in 2013, to 49 percent a year after that and 47 percent in 2015. Last year, the passage rate was 44 percent, according to a report by Research Solutions compiled for the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which took testimony on the issue. About 14,000 people take the Bar exam each year. There are about 190,000 practicing attorneys in California.

“In the last few years, California’s bar passage rate has reached historic lows,” said Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, a San Diego Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee. “This dramatic decline has caused alarm among students and graduate deans … and consumers of legal services.”

The reasons for the decline are not clear.

Are incoming law school students less prepared than their earlier counterparts? Is the exam too rigorous, especially in comparison with other states? Are too many subjects covered? Are the law schools providing adequate training? Are the stresses and costs of a legal education itself a factor, with a debt load of $130,000 per student not uncommon? Are the costly bar-review programs doing their job to prepare students for the test?

“I am seriously concerned, not just about impact of the decline in bar passage rates, but also of the increasing gap between bar passage rates in California, and other major jurisdictions, such as New York,” said Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the University of San Diego Law School. “The effect of this low bar passage rate is to put our students and our law schools at a competitive disadvantage.”

He called for a “national standard for a minimum passage rate for law school accreditation.”

The overall decline in law school enrollment was 25.5 percent between 2010 and 2016.

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