Does the California State Bar have a race problem?

A recent meeting of the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners (CBE) suggests to me that the California Bar may have a problem with race. That is, its leaders do not understand or are not willing to accept that they are putting up a barrier to minorities who wish to practice law. The evidence of this potential problem is found in the tape of the hearing which you can view here as well as a report prepared by the Bar Association’s staff on the bar exam.

The CBE chair, Karen Goodman, who readily admits (Min. 48:00) that she is from “Elk Grove” (a small town south of Sacramento that is, ironically, quite racially diverse) and so may not understand the data presented to her, questions whether lowering the “cut score” (the minimum number of points needed to pass) on the bar exam would help improve access to justice.

Yet, the data presented to the CBE she chairs indicates clearly that lowering the cut score even a modest amount (and still at a level well above that of New York state) would significantly increase the number of minority lawyers in the state. And this would be true in a state bar that remains overwhelmingly white and male and older, despite significant demographic shifts in the state over the last few decades.

The Bar staff report concluded: “…applicants of color pass the [current] bar exam at rates that are disproportionate to those of their white counterparts.This impact, when combined with disproportionately lower numbers of people of color in the pipeline to higher education and law school, has resulted in a pool of licensed attorneys in California that does not reflect the population of the state.”

And CBE Chair Goodman seems to go out of her way to minimize the impact of not lowering the cut score by suggesting, without any basis, that newly admitted minority lawyers won’t be of any assistance to the communities from which they came because they may not return to work in those settings. She apparently believes, despite decades of experience with affirmative action and other programs suggesting the contrary, that the only way they help those communities is by going back to them!

In any case, she and others on the CBE seemed unfamiliar with the debt repayment plans and financial support for those who go into public interest legal positions that are available to many law school graduates, thus opening a pipeline to enable lawyers to return to those communities. Of course, if we arbitrarily limit the number of minority lawyers that goal is not going to be easy to meet.

The Bar staff report also concluded that lowering the cut score would likely not have any impact on the number of attorneys subject to discipline by the bar, thus the Committee’s mandate to protect the public would still be met: “…attorney discipline – as measured by private and public discipline per thousand attorneys – appears to have no relationship to the cut score….based on the data available, it appears unlikely that changing the cut score would have any impact on the incidence of attorney misconduct.” (p. 36 of the Report to the Board of Trustees of the California State Bar Final Report on the Standard Setting Study and Public Comments Regarding Pass Line Options September 5, 2017.)

Thus, while we do not know why the cut score is so much higher than needed to meet the primary mandate of the CBE (protection of the public), we do know that by setting it at 144 the Bar has put up a wall over which minority law school graduates have difficulty climbing with the inevitable outcome: a disparate impact on those hopeful new law school graduates.

(This is likely why the Bar staff recommended three options: leaving the score the same, lowering it slightly to 141 or lowering it further to 139, a point which would still be 6 points higher than New York. Despite the troglodyte nature of the CBE deliberations, the Board of Trustees voted 6-5 to send all three staff options to the Supreme Court, which remains free to accept or reject those, as it has ultimate authority now over the cut score.)

Goodman and others on the Committee also seem to be ignorant of the actual improving employment data for lawyers in California over the past several years. Instead of using the reliable longitudinal data of, for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (which show steady increases in the number of employed lawyers in California over the last decade as well as steady increases in average earnings), Goodman casually read aloud random and somewhat misleading ABA employment reports of various law schools. These only track the first ten months of a law school graduate’s career.

Amazingly, Goodman seems unaware what that means – given the very high cut score in California, many students require several expensive and demoralizing attempts to pass the bar and thus are unable to get jobs as lawyers in those first ten months.

Yet, many of those students will, in fact, eventually pass. They are only forced to delay their careers at great personal expense because of California’s irrational and baseless high passing score required by Goodman’s committee.

In other words, if Goodman and her Committee were truly motivated to improve access to the bar for minorities who wish to become licensed lawyers they could easily take steps to do so. But they have steadfastly refused to do that to date, instead punting the issue to the California Supreme Court. Hopefully, the Court will do the right thing and begin the process of restructuring the State Bar, including its committee structure and current leadership.

At a minimum, they should ignore the self-serving surveys conducted by the current Bar and 1) temporarily lower the cut score to the same level as New York (133 as opposed to its current 144); and 2) appoint a blue ribbon independent commission chaired by Dean Ferruolo of the University of San Diego School of Law to conduct a thorough study of the purpose, impact and structure of the bar exam with a mandate to propose any and all changes needed to improve access to, and effectiveness of, the legal profession in California.