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State Bar leaders, worried that law students aren’t being drilled sufficiently on legal ethics, are leaning toward toughening the state’s requirements for passing a nationally administered test on the subject. Meeting in San Francisco on Saturday, the State Bar Board of Governors voted 13-5 to ask the Committee of Bar Examiners to consider raising the minimum passing score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination higher than the current scaled score of 79. The request was a compromise reached after the board rejected a committee proposal to raise the minimum passing grade to a scaled score of 100 — on a scale of 50 to 150. The proposed minimum would have been 14 points higher than any other state’s. Only 19 states currently have a passing score lower than California’s on the ethics exam, which is regarded as much easier than the state’s main Bar exam. In a separate action, the Committee of Bar Examiners voted to develop a policy regarding religious holidays that fall on exam dates. In the ethics matter, the governors asked the Committee of Bar Examiners to consider whether the ethics test should be abolished altogether — an action that’s very unlikely to occur. Most law professors believe the exam has merit, but many told the Bar that increasing the passing score by 21 points would not be appropriate. The MPRE is a 50-question multiple-choice exam administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners three times a year. Law students can take the test as often as they want, but must pass it before practicing law. Each state sets its own passing score, with most falling between 75 and 85. The exam — which tests students on their knowledge of the American Bar Association’s model rules — is not required in Maryland, Washington and Wisconsin. Jerome Braun, the State Bar’s senior executive of admissions, told the board that the bar examiners felt “very strongly” that ethics is an area that should be greatly emphasized, for the betterment of future lawyers and to show the public how dedicated California is to professional responsibility. Because the test is scaled, increasing the minimum score to 100, he said, would amount to just an extra two or three correct answers. Robert Cochran Jr., a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, appeared in person on Saturday to ask the board to reject the proposal. He said he appreciated the purpose of the idea, but felt it would be counterproductive — a thought reflected by several other law professors in letters to the Bar. Cochran predicted that a passing score of 100 would produce a disastrously high failure rate, would have a particularly harsh impact on minorities and have no practical effect, forcing students to focus on the minutiae of rules and regulations rather than actually developing ethical characteristics. “Five years out,” he asked, “what are people going to remember?” Cochran’s presentation swayed several governors, who eventually asked for a lesser increase. There were also some concerns about the $52 students must pony up each time they take the test, with an extra $250 needed if they want a preparatory course. “The fee may be onerous to the less economically blessed student,” said Bar Gov. Sheldon Sloan, of counsel at Los Angeles’ Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith. Also on Saturday, the board voted 14-4 to ask the Committee of Bar Examiners to adopt a policy to accommodate bar exam applicants for religious holidays. The issue came up in the July bar exam when 25 applicants asked for a day’s delay because of Tisha B’Av, a Jewish holiday that marks the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the Romans in 70 A.D. Among other sacrifices, observant Jews aren’t supposed to conduct work of any manner on that day. The requests for accommodation were granted on an emergency basis. There was a lively debate on Saturday and during a committee meeting on Friday, with some questioning the need for a policy. Even the Committee of Bar Examiners opposed the idea, saying it would be difficult to determine whether a person’s beliefs were part of a traditionally recognized religion. There were also concerns that the Bar could be opening a Pandora’s box in light of the large number of religions. In the end, a majority felt that setting a policy would be the correct thing to do. Besides, Sloan said, “If we don’t adopt a policy, the Legislature may do it for us.”

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