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After CA Supreme Court Chief Justice calls state bar exam pass rate ‘frightening,’ exploring the arguments for and against lowering the cut score

Students go about their business at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Students go about their business at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
David McNew/Getty Images

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The California bar exam is notorious in the legal community for being one the toughest in the nation to pass, due in part to its so-called ‘cut score,’ which is the second highest in the nation at 144 (Delaware’s is the only one that’s higher).

This past year marked a milestone in the test’s history. When the State Bar of California released the scores for the 2018 test, an all-time low of 40 percent of those who took the bar, which all would-be attorneys must take before being able to practice law, passed it.

The debate over whether to lower the cut score has been going on for years in California. Some argue that the 144 mark is out of line with the rest of the nation, which has a median cut score of 135, and that requiring applicants to achieve such a high score means they risk potentially losing their job if they don’t pass, or will struggle to find work if they’re not already employed. Not to mention the amount of money a potential lawyer sinks into law school, test prep, and application fees.

But others say that the reason passage rates are so low is because law schools have lowered their LSAT and GPA standards for admitting students in order to keep tuition dollars flowing, and that making the bar easier to pass will produce inadequately-prepared lawyers, and that unemployed law school grads might accept a job with a disreputable firm that pays nothing or try and strike out on their own and set up their own firm, creating even more financial and career risk.

Should the California bar exam cut score be lowered? Why or why not? What would the potential outcomes be if the State Supreme Court, which determines the cut score, decided at some point to lower the cut score?


Jennifer Mnookin, dean of UCLA School of Law, who has co-written an op-ed in the LA Times published recently on why the “cut score” should be lowered

Stephen Chung, tax attorney based in Cerritos and a weekly columnist for the legal blog “Above the Law,” where he has written several articles about keeping the current cut score