Menu Close

The California State Bar Examination is administered twice a year, in July and in February. The February 2020 results were released this May.

The percentage of would-be lawyers who passed California’s February bar exam plummeted to a historic low with fewer than 3 in 10 test-takers posting a passing score, according to figures released by the State Bar. Just 26.8% of the 4,205 applicants who completed the test passed. That’s the lowest success rate recorded in California since at least 1951, the oldest figures provided by the Bar.

The mean scaled Multistate Bar Examination score on the February 2020 bar exam in California was 1357, down from 1370 last year. The national mean score was 1326, down from the previous year’s mean of 1328 and an all-time low.

This year’s dismal pass rate, recorded just two years after the February 2018 exam set a record low, will shine a spotlight yet again on the Bar’s efforts to revamp a controversial test that a majority of applicants regularly flunk. The Bar has completed four studies related to the exam, and trustees will consider possible next steps at a teleconference meeting.

The figures are striking, but the trend is nothing new: pass rates have generally declined in California and nationwide since 2008.

In 2017, the Supreme Court of California commissioned several studies to investigate the bar pass problem in an effort to determine, among other things, if the exam content should be changed or the cut score modified. Perhaps not surprisingly, they concluded that the content was appropriate and that the cut score should not be changed.

The report concluded that changes in credentials for entering law students – primarily LSAT and, to a lesser extent, undergraduate GPA-contributed to 20 to 50 percent of the decline in bar performance.

In a classic glass half-full/half-empty split, critics of law schools use this to claim that weaker students are primarily the explanation, and decry proposals to make it easier for them to pass; while defenders will no doubt insist that we need to focus on whatever accounts for the other 50 to 80 percent of the decline.

Interestingly, the study found little impact on bar pass rates based on which substantive courses law students take, or whether they participate in externships, clinics, or the like.