(Mediaphotos/iStockphoto.com.)

Lawyers and law school graduates on Monday pleaded with California state bar officials to support the adoption of a lower passing, or cut, score on the bar exam.

A bar-commissioned study released last month concluded that California could reduce its second-highest-in-the-nation cut score from 144 to 141 and still ensure that newly minted lawyers meet minimum competency requirements.

The bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners is now taking public comments on the study’s findings. On Monday, panel members met in Los Angeles where they heard more than two hours of testimony, almost all from lawyers, students and law school educators who favor lowering the cut score to 141, or an even lower number.

“Frankly I don’t think [141] goes far enough,” Jennifer Mnookin, dean of the UCLA School of Law, told bar officials.

UCLA law students typically pass the bar exam at one of the highest rates for schools in the state. But Mnookin has been outspoken in her calls to drop California’s cut score closer to the national mean requirement of 135. The high cut score puts California law school graduates at a disadvantage nationally, she said, while forcing schools to spend more time on exam preparation instead of offering a diversity of course work, she said.

“If we are going to retain a minimum competency level that is unusually, atypically high we need to have very good evidence that we get a performance benefit from that decision,” Mnookin said. “But right now we do not have that evidence. There is absolutely no evidence that California’s unusually high cut score actually produces better lawyers than states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois. None.”

She and other deans have questioned the exam study’s methodology, which did not include review of the Multistate Bar Exam section.

“To do these studies well and right will simply take longer,” Mnookin said.

Two consultants retained by the bar reviewed the cut score study. While each offered some criticisms of various aspects of the study, both concluded there was no reason to invalidate it.

California’s cut score has come under intense scrutiny, particularly from law school deans, as the percentage of those passing the exam has slid in recent years. The passing rate for this year’s February exam sunk below 35 percent, the lowest for a spring sitting in eight years.

J. Neil Gieleghem was the lone voice questioning the calls to reduce the passing score. A former exam grader who has taught exam preparation courses at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, Gieleghem said the testing process during his tenure was “remarkably fair,” and he sees no signs that has changed.

“It’s largely that the applicant pool seems to approach the exam in a way I find inexplicable,” Gieleghem said. The burden should be on those who want the cut score lowered to prove that California’s exam is invalid, he said.

“What’s being contemplated here is the wrong fix, for the wrong problem, for the wrong reason,” said Gieleghem.

Bar examiners will hold another public comment session Tuesday in San Francisco. Those interested can also submit comments online through Aug. 25. The bar’s board of trustees will make a final recommendation on the cut score to the state Supreme Court in September.