California Bar Exam Pass Rate Reaches New Low

California law students (Adam Berry / Getty)
Adam Berry / Getty

The success rate for prospective lawyers that took the California Bar Exam this July slid to just 43 percent receiving a passing score on the 2016 test.

The dismal 2016 success rate was down from 46.6 percent in July 2015, which was down from 48.6 percent in July 2014. The most recent pass rate is the lowest for any of the Bar’s July or October administrations in the past 32 years, according to the California Bar Association.

The number of people who took the test, at 7,737, was the lowest in 12 years. The number was down from 8,323 in 2015, which was also the smallest in 11 years.

The Recorder reports that Gayle Murphy, senior executive for admissions at the state Bar, speaking through a representative, attributed the dropping rate to fluctuations rooted in “the skills, abilities and preparations of the applicants who take a particular administration.”

But the real reason for lower pass rates in recent years is more likely that top-notch college graduates, most already saddled with significant student debt, are choosing other career paths where the upside is better.

After a period of explosive growth since the 1960s, the U.S. legal profession was hammered with waves of layoffs and even bankruptcies by a number of high profile corporate “white shoe” firms. The days of big firms may be over, with just 16 percent of the 1,300,705 licensed lawyers in the United States in firms with 100 or more lawyers.

About half all lawyers today are solo practitioners, and two thirds are in small firms with five or fewer lawyers. Since the 1960s, the IRS published income levels for all American lawyers filing as solo practitioners. Solo practitioners in 1988 earned an inflation-adjusted $70,747. But by 2012, inflation adjusted earnings had fallen 31 percent, to $49,130.

A huge portion of what lawyers traditionally relied on for steady income is being digitally replaced by online providers of legal services such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

As a result, the number of applicants to all American Bar Association-accredited law schools has fallen 41 percent in the last 5 years, according to data from the ABA. The legal industry’s declining economic prospects are also hitting America’s top-20-rated law schools, where applications have fallen by 18 percent.

Derek Muller, Associate Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, told the Recorder that “law schools are graduating students that are passing the Bar at lower rates,” despite the number of students taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) holding steady.

Despite California’s low overall pass rate, first-time test takers from California-based ABA-accredited schools scored the highest pass rate in the nation, at 62 percent. If they meet moral character determination requirements, 3,332 Californians can join the Bar this year.


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