California Supreme Court responds (finally) to state’s bar exam crisis

As loyal readers of this blog well know, California legal education has been facing severe pressure as demand by recent college graduates for a J.D. has fallen off despite a strong employment market for lawyers.

As demand for law schools has fallen the test scores and GPA’s of incoming students have also declined. This has had particularly severe consequences in California which has what is considered the most demanding bar exam in the country both because of its high bar to passage (its so-called “cut” score below which a student cannot fall is among the highest in the country) and the large number of potentially testable topics.

For many years the bar exam’s content and grading has been in the hands of an obscure committee of the California state bar that includes non-lawyers and political appointees. They have been tone deaf to the crisis facing California law schools despite articulate arguments for reform from figures like the dean of the University of San Diego School of Law Stephen Ferruolo, himself a former partner of a major law firm.

I explored those calls for reform here.

The crisis became even more acute recently because of the controversial decision by the trustees of Whitter College to close their ABA accredited law school, a school that had long been viewed as a gateway into the legal practice for minority students, particularly hispanics. After Whittier’s bar passage rate suffered a steep decline the trustees shocked their students and faculty by unilaterally announcing the closure, despite recovering employment of lawyers in Orange County and of the school’s own graduates. I wrote about the closing here and here.

In the wake of the Whittier closure, I called for the California Supreme Court to intervene.

Now, they have, at least with respect to the bar exam. The Court has announced rule changes that allow it to select the final “cut” score and to appoint a majority of the members of the California Bar Associations Commmittee of Bar Examiners. Details on the announcement are reported here and here.

This is an important first step. Next, however, the Court should appoint an independent blue ribbon commission chaired by Dean Ferruolo to assess the content of the bar exam and to explore whether the Whittier closing was justified. A diverse and heavily populated state like California cannot afford to lose an ABA accredited law school like Whittier. In fact, the blue ribbon commission should explore ways to expand quality legal services in the state.