Q&A on the Recent California Supreme Court  Bar Exam Decisions

with Dean Mitchel Winick of Monterey College of Law

The California Supreme Court announced several far-reaching changes to the California Bar Exam on July 16, 2020. Prior to issuing its decisions, four members of the Court participated in a July 2, 2020 Zoom videoconference call with deans representing all categories of law schools in California. The following is a Q&A with Mitchel L. Winick, President and Dean of Monterey College of Law who participated in the discussion with the Justices and who drafted the correspondence to the Court outlining the recommendations of the California Accredited Law Schools (CALS).

What were the primary concerns that the law school deans voiced to the Court?

The deans shared concerns about the serious impact that the delay of the July 2020 bar examination is having on graduates’ careers and personal lives. These impacts include significant economic burdens, loss of employment opportunities, and financial stresses that many graduating law students are now facing because their opportunity for licensure as a California attorney is delayed and uncertain. Many graduates also are reporting significant psychological and emotional impacts, particularly for those of limited economic means, resulting from disruptions in living circumstances, family care responsibilities, parenting conditions, and conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.

A growing number of law firms and public agencies have delayed employment offers and job starting dates for recent graduates until after the first of the year. The delays are attributed to a combination of the direct impact that the COVID-19 virus has had on the practice of law and the delay in licensing due to the rescheduling of the July 2020 bar exam. There is little that the Court can do to address the disruption of the legal industry by the Coronavirus, but it has direct control over decisions that can lessen the potentially devastating impact of denying or delaying licensure to recent law school graduates.

California is unique in having ABA-approved, State Bar Accredited, and Registered Unaccredited Law Schools. Did the different type of law schools agree on how to address the cancellation of the July 2020 bar exam?

Yes, there was fundamental agreement across the board on the menu of choices the law school deans presented to the Court. The key requests included cancelling the in-person September exam due to health and safety concerns, offering an online October exam to provide a safe alternative in the Fall, adjusting the minimum passing score (“cut score”) from the artificially high 1440 to a number closer to the national mean (1350), and authorization of a supervised practice license (with or without an eventual bar exam) to address the delay and disruption caused by cancelling the July 2020 bar exam. The only significant difference was that the ABA law school deans also advocated for authorization of a “Diploma Privilege” that would grant recent law school graduates a permanent license after a period of supervised practice without requiring a bar exam. The CALS deans were concerned that this recommendation was too difficult to administer given the fact that California has graduates from 40+ in-state and 70+ out-of-state-law schools who traditionally sit for the bar exam. The Court’s decision to authorize a two-year supervised practice license within which time the bar exam must be taken and passed followed the CALS’ recommendation. A Diploma Privilege without a bar exam was not approved.

Were you surprised that the Court cancelled the September in-person bar exam?

Not at all. Although several other states continue to ignore the potential COVID-19 health and safety consequences of placing hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of unrelated individuals in a closed environment for 18-20 hours to take an in-person exam, cancelling the in-person exam in the midst of California’s escalating pandemic was clearly the only sensible and safe call.

It sounds like the law school deans were in favor of the proposed October 5-6, 2020 online bar exam. However, this has never been attempted before. Any concerns?

Certainly, there are concerns anytime that something this important is implemented for the first time. However, administering computer-based, high-stakes professional exams is not new. Elements of the licensing exams for Architects, CPAs, Optometrists, Psychologists, Dentists, Veterinarians, and Realtors, just to name a few, are already administered as computer-based exams. However, the decision to move the October bar exam online is not without consequences. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) refuses to provide a validated set of Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) questions for the second day of the proposed October exam. This means that October examinees will not be able to use the October California MBE exam results for applications to any other jurisdiction. There are also legitimate concerns about the security and stability of an online exam, fair access to reliable internet connections, distractions of at-home testing environments, and provision of appropriate testing accommodations. However, balancing public health and safety with these surmountable challenges, the Court made the right call to authorize an online exam alternative.

What is the long-term impact of changing the minimum passing score (“cut score”) from 1440 to 1390?

California has been out-of-step with the national cut-score standards for decades. The result has been that thousands of qualified law school graduates have been denied licensure in California despite consistently achieving some of the highest bar exam scores in the country. Furthermore, a recent report released by the State Bar analyzing ten years of bar exam results clearly indicated that use of the artificially high 1440 cut score has had a significant and profound disparate impact on the basis of race/ethnicity. By bringing California in line with the national bar exam standards and creating a more fair and equitable scoring system, it is very likely that the Court has taken the most significant step forward for improving diversity of the California bench and bar since the Civil Right Act of 1964.

You have previously advocated for adjustment of the cut score to 1330-1350 to be more directly in line with other major jurisdictions. Are you disappointed that the Court only adjusted the cut score to 1390?

Not at all. The Court specifically said that it will consider further changes to the cut score and the content and format of the bar exam as part of its soon-to-be convened Blue-Ribbon Commission for the Future of the Bar Exam. The national mean is the equivalent of 1350 . . . New York is at 1330, Illinois is at 1340, and Texas is at 1350 . . . I believe that the Court will take these factors into consideration when it receives the Commission’s findings and has the opportunity (hopefully, when we are no longer in the midst of a pandemic) to consider alternatives for licensing attorneys in the future.

Will a Supervised Practice License adequately protect the public?

Yes, a Supervised Practice License actually enables the discovery and measurement of competency and merit beyond the limited scope of the bar exam. Many law school graduates who have not yet passed the California Bar Exam exhibit valued professional characteristics such as character, compassion, organization, service, and selflessness that the current bar exam is incapable of detecting, much less measuring. While the current bar exam tests grit, a degree of academic competency, and high-stakes test-taking skills, these are not necessarily the most important qualities and values our profession demands of its competent and valued practitioners. Academic competencies alone do not make good lawyers and citizens. They must be tempered with human qualities, not measured by the current bar exam content or format . . . qualities that identify a person as a selfless servant of others, an advocate, and a compassionate guardian of the rule of law. Alternative pathways for establishing minimum competency, such as a period of supervised practice, open up the possibility for identifying a broader range of competent, compassionate, qualified legal professionals who might otherwise be excluded by the narrow focus of the current bar exam.

With the cooperation and active participation by the practicing bench and bar, the proposed supervised practice license may go a long way to provide successful graduates with a pathway to practice. The longer-term impact is that the success of supervised licensed practitioners over the next two years may provide proof that a permanent alternative to the traditional bar exam should be considered.

Overall, given all of these challenges, did the Court make the right call?

The Court not only made the right call, but demonstrated its unique ability to strike a careful balance between public protection, oversight of the legal profession, fairness to recent law school graduates, and commitment to diversity of the bench and bar. The Court’s decisions will fundamentally change who will be practicing law in California in the future . . . changes that are good, fair, and long-overdue.