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State Bar of California officials were scratching their heads Monday as the pass rate for the July bar examination hit an 18-year low. Results released late Friday show that only 48 percent of the 8,062 individuals who took the test passed. The pass rate for a main test date hadn’t been that low since 1986, when it was only 44 percent. Jerome Braun, the State Bar’s senior executive for admissions, said he didn’t have an explanation for the low pass rate, but he noted that it continued a three-year trend — with pass rates for the July exam dropping from 57 percent in 2001 to 51 percent in 2002 and to 49 percent in 2003. Braun also pointed out that the average score on the Multistate Bar Examination — the multiple choice part of the three-part test — has also been going down. “We do know,” he said, “the pass rate tends to follow the MBE scores.” Steven Smith, chairman of the Law School Council, a group comprised of law school deans and State Bar examiners, said the low pass rate was a problem in other states, too. “Generally, across the country, I hear we need to look at bar pass rates,” said Smith, dean of San Diego’s California Western School of Law. He also said pass rates in California are “noticeably lower” than in other states and that it might be time to reconsider how harshly the state’s exams are graded. But Braun said that California’s pass rates for the MBE remain higher than the national average. And the format of the state’s exam — consisting of the multiple choice test, six essay questions and two performance tests designed to assess an applicant’s ability to apply general legal knowledge to practical tasks — hasn’t changed in 15 years. “All I can say,” Braun said, “is that in any given year people are better prepared or less well-prepared or some factor outside the examination itself is what’s causing the problem.” The highest pass rate for the July test in recent years occurred in 1997, when 63 percent of 7,716 applicants passed. The more than 8,000 applicants this year set a record high in sheer numbers taking the exam. “Let’s face it,” Braun said. “We’ve got better than 60 law schools here in California, and they are producing a lot of students.” At any time, he added, there are 17,000 to 18,000 law school students in the state. Among the 5,521 first-time testers, 63 percent cleared the July exam. Of those who attended a California school approved by the ABA, 69 percent passed; 65.8 percent for those who attended ABA schools outside the state; 29 percent for applicants from schools approved by the state, but not by the ABA; and 9 percent for students at unaccredited law schools. For the 2,541 applicants repeating the test, 17 percent passed overall. In addition, 39 percent of the 338 lawyers taking the attorney’s examination passed. That test is open to lawyers who have been admitted to practice law in another jurisdiction and in good standing for at least four years. Before being admitted to the State Bar, the 3,887 successful applicants must take an ethics examination, undergo moral character determinations and not be in arrears on family or child support payments. Admissions ceremonies will be held throughout the state in December. Currently, there are more than 146,000 active lawyers in California. In 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were 584,000 attorneys employed nationwide.
Year Percent
2004 48
1986 44
1985 45
1984 42
1982 48
1981 48
Pass rates from July or (pre-1988) Fall exams, 1954to 2004.
SOURCE: California State Bar
(The Recorder, November 2004)

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