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California Bar Exam Pass Rate Set to 40% For Law School Accreditation

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San Francisco Civic Center, home of the California Supreme Court // credit: Wallyg
San Francisco Civic Center, home of the California Supreme Court // credit: Wallyg

The California Bar Exam is widely considered one of, if not the most difficult entrance examinations for the legal profession in the United States. The overall passage rate from the July 2012 exam was 54.4 percent, and from February 2012, the rate was even lower at 42.5 percent. Unbelievably, these rates are up slightly from those in recent bar history.

Now, state law schools are being held responsible for the passage rates of their students. The California State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners (CBE) voted last month to adopt changes to its guidelines for accredited law schools, to require that schools maintain a cumulative bar examination passage rate of at least 40 percent in order to keep their accreditation status. Tweet the news:

Prior to this change, schools accredited by the California State Bar were told that bar exam passage rates would be “a factor” that the Bar used to determine whether they were providing a legal education of sufficient quality for accreditation. However, there was no quantitative percentage assigned to constitute sufficient bar passage rates for the schools. The new guidelines became effective January 1, 2013, and state law schools must provide an initial compliance report to the State Bar in November, 2013.

California law schools seeking CBE accreditation will now have their bar passage rates examined more rigidly. Passage rates will be tabulated yearly as a percentage based on the number of students who graduated within the past five years and passed an administration of the bar exam during that time, divided by the number of graduates during the same five  year period who took any of those exams.

This is intended to provide a five year average passage rate for the institution and allow for yearly fluctuations. Beginning in 2016, schools that fall below the 40 percent cumulative bar passage rate could lose their accreditation if they don’t comply with the requirements by the end of the following year.

ABA Approved Schools Exempt

The new guidelines, and the 40 percent passage rate requirement, will apply to all California law schools seeking accreditation by the CBE. However, California law schools approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) will be exempt from the new requirement.

The CBE has previously decided that ABA approved law schools are deemed accredited by the CBE but exempt from the CBE’s requirements — see Rules of the State Bar of California, Title 4, Rule 4.102 (effective 1/1/2009). The intent behind this exemption appears to be that the ABA has sufficiently strict requirements to ensure a proper legal education such that ABA approved schools need meet any additional requirements of the CBE.

A list of California ABA approved schools appears in Chart 1-B. As you can see, few ABA approved schools have bar passage rates from 2012 that would put them at or near the 40 percent cut-off established by the CBE, even if those rules were applicable to the schools.

California Law Schools at Risk to Lose CBE Accreditation

The new 40 percent rule could spell serious trouble for the eighteen California accredited law schools within the purview of the rule change. All of these schools fell below the 40 percent threshold in bar passage rates for one or both of the most recent (July and February) 2012 examinations. A list of the eighteen California accredited (but not ABA approved) schools, along with bar passage rates for 2012, appears in Chart 1-C.

The CBE’s new guidelines were allegedly passed to add a quantitative criterion to the previously qualitative examination of law schools for purposes of state accreditation. However, given the notorious difficulty of the California Bar Exam and data available from recent bar examinations, the CBE has to be well aware of the likely result of the rule change. Many state accredited schools will be at risk to lose their accreditation in 2016 when the five-year bar passage data reports are due to the CBE.

The State of California is unique in that it does not require applicants for the State Bar to attend law school at a state bar accredited or American Bar Association (ABA) approved school, or any school at all. In other words, any person could study for the California Bar Exam, and if they passed all components (including moral character evaluation), they would be licensed to practice as a lawyer in California. It seems in practice, however, few people follow this route.

Instead, future lawyers overwhelmingly prefer to obtain a legal education before taking the California bar exam. However, if this guideline is enforced in 2016 and bar passage rates do not increase at state accredited law schools, the educational options available to future lawyers could be shrinking drastically.

CA Bar Passage Statistics

* In charts 1-A and 1-B, red highlights passage rates below 40 percent CBE cut-off
* In Chart 1-B, yellow highlights passage rates near 40 percent CBE cut-off
* In Chart 1-C, green highlights passage rates above 40 percent CBE cut-off

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Mitchel L. Winick
Mitchel L. Winick

This article makes a basic mistake that is easy to make given the complexity of the State Bar accreditation standards. The new rules require a 40% CUMULATIVE bar pass rate over a five-year period. The statistics that are quoted and highlighted in the charts are for ONE-TIME bar pass rates. These ARE NOT THE SAME statistics. The State Bar has never published cumulative pass rates for ABA or California accredited law schools, so the new rules will also require new reporting by the State Bar in order for these statistics to be meaningful. For example, Monterey College of Law is shown in the chart above to have a 50% first-time pass rate in July 2012 and a 60% first-time pass rate for February 2012. What is not shown is that if the new rules were in effect today, the CUMULATIVE FIVE-YEAR pass rate for Monterey College of Law (2007-2012) is 66%. Most of the nineteen California accredited law schools WILL have a 40% cumulative bar pass rate or higher over the required five-year period. The purpose of the new rule is to recognize that many of the non-traditional, working law students at the California accredited law schools are successful in passing the bar exam, but require more than one opportunity. These subsequent passers are not reflected in the first-time pass rate statistics or the repeater rates above. The cumulative pass rate has been the accreditation standard for decades, however there has never been a stated minimum (now 40%) or a defined period of years (now 5 years) until now. Mitchel L. Winick, President and Dean, Monterey College of Law

Noel Egnatios
Noel Egnatios

Thanks for your comment. You are right that the accreditation is based on a cumulative standard, and that there is no publication of cumulative standards. This should be clear from the article. The intent of the data presented with the article is to give people a sense of where the various schools currently stand by presenting current passage rates - which is an indication of what their cumulative scores might be (because it does end up being 1/5th of that 5 year cumulative statistic). Until schools start releasing their accurate cumulative scores in 2016, we won't know whether they meet the new standard, but it will be interesting to see. It is helpful and informative for you to make public the score for your particular law school has at present time, hopefully others will follow suit in 2016, so the process is as transparent as possible.

Also, I did not find anything to suggest the import of the rule change had to do with giving people of any particular stripe more time to pass the bar. Instead, it was to hold law schools to a quantitative passage rate, averaged over a reasonable time period. If you have a source for your statement "The purpose of the new rule is to recognize that many of the non-traditional, working law students at the California accredited law schools are successful in passing the bar exam, but require more than one opportunity", please pass it on and we would be happy to do a follow up article. Moreover, plenty of ABA approved law schools (which are exempt from this rule) have night programs, part-time programs or otherwise cater to non-traditional, working people, and still have very high CA bar passage rates for first time takers.

Noel Egnatios
Noel Egnatios

What became so obvious to me when I crunched the numbers for this article was that essentially ALL of the CA accredited (not ABA approved) schools subject to this new rule will fail to meet the 40% standard if current trends continue, and be subject to de-accreditation. The state bar has figured out a way to get rid of the riffraff in a very elegant way. You have to believe that the schools that lose their accreditation status will have a very hard time surviving in an already crowded market of state law schools.

Edward Bonnette
Edward Bonnette

I'm actually really glad the state is finally starting to do this. Yes, some schools may risk losing their accreditation but if their not teaching the students what they need to know to become lawyers, then obviously they should not be teaching students law anyways.

Alex Gauthier
Alex Gauthier

i think there are a lot of 'schools' out there that aren't giving students the right tools to succeed.