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It might be an all-time low. Figures released by the California State Bar on Sunday indicate that of the 4,488 applicants for the February bar exam, 37.3 percent passed. That’s only 1,673 people, making for the lowest February pass rate in at least 15 years. State bar officials couldn’t confirm Tuesday whether the rate was the lowest ever, but it’s certainly a far cry from the 50.9 percent who passed the February 1992 test. And it’s even lower than last year’s 40 percent pass rate, which tied a 1998 figure that was the lowest since at least 1986. “It bothers me,” said Jerome Braun, the state bar’s senior executive for admissions. “I don’t like to see the exam rate drop that low.” Even so, Braun said that the fact that the overall rate dropped isn’t as significant as the fact that the pass rate for first-time applicants rose from 51.3 percent last year to 52.5 percent this year. “People who take the exam for the first time statistically have the best chance of passing it,” he said. “If the first-time pass rate had taken a substantial drop, I’d certainly want to see if I could figure out why that happened.” Looking on the bright side even further, other bar officials noted that the pass rate for applicants taking the attorneys’ examination — which is open to any barrister who has practiced law in another jurisdiction for at least four years — jumped drastically. The rate increased from 53.5 percent last year to 66.9 percent this year. Even so, the overall pass rate has to pose some concern. Braun said last year that an acceptable pass rate for the February bar exam would be from 40 to 50 percent. By comparison, the pass rate for the July 2000 bar exam was 55.3 percent, which was up from 51.2 percent the year before. But state bar officials expect the February exam results to be lower than the July test results because the winter test has a greater percentage of repeaters. Braun said Tuesday that the overall pass rate isn’t due to any differences in the exam itself, but rather is due to the makeup of the group taking it. “Each group who takes the exam is unique unto itself,” he said. “Each has its own characteristics, its own talents and its own skills. No two groups are exactly alike.” The California bar also reported Tuesday that 34.2 percent of applicants took the February test for the first time. Of those, the pass rate was 49.8 percent for applicants who attended California law schools approved by the American Bar Association, 46.9 percent for first-time out-of-state ABA applicants, 29 percent for applicants from schools accredited by the California State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners, but not approved by the ABA, and 8 percent for applicants from unaccredited law schools. The bar also reported that there was a 67 percent passing rate for applicants not allocated to a law school. This group is comprised of attorneys from other states who didn’t qualify for the attorneys’ examination and applicants who took the bar exam more than one year after finishing law school. Of the 2,954 applicants repeating the test, 29.3 percent passed. The pass rate was 37.8 percent for repeaters from California ABA-approved schools, 38.1 percent for out-of-state ABA applicants, 15.4 percent for state bar-accredited schools and 6 percent for unaccredited law schools. The figure for applicants not allocated to any law school was 22.9 percent. The three-day February bar exam consisted of a multiple choice Multistate Bar Examination, six essay questions and two performance tests designed to test an applicant’s ability to apply general legal knowledge to practical tasks. The attorneys’ exam consists of the essay and performance sections of the bar exam. The state bar is currently considering changing the bar exam by going to a two-day format and adding five new areas of law to be tested. There’s also a slim chance that the performance segment could be eliminated or shortened. Passing the bar doesn’t mean an applicant is automatically admitted to practice, though. All applicants now must pass a Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, receive a positive moral character determination, and not be in arrears on child support or family payments. Surviving all that, they can take the oath in June. The state bar reported Tuesday that California had 175,165 lawyers as of May, the largest bar in the nation.

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