Ahead of Tuesday’s exam, State Bar of California leaks essay topics to law schools

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The State Bar of California said Sunday that it inadvertently leaked essay topics for Tuesday’s bar exam, one of the toughest in the nation, to 16 law school deans last week.

After finding out about the leak, the State Bar emailed the essay topics to all test-takers on Saturday night in “an attempt to level the playing field” in case any test-takers saw the email to the law school deans. The topics cover the written portion of the bar exam, which makes up half of test-takers’ scores. Roughly 9,000 people are expected to participant in the two-day exam.

Apologizing in the release, the State Bar said that the email they sent Thursday to some California law school deans – an invitation to observe a grading session of the bar exam – is typically sent after the exam.

“We have no evidence the information was shared with students,” Donna Hershkowitz, the bar’s chief of programs said in prepared remarks. “However, out of an abundance of caution and fairness, and in an attempt to level the playing field should any applicants have had access to the information contained in the memo, on Saturday evening, we emailed the same information, verbatim, to all those preparing to take the examination.”

The premature disclosure of essay topics relieves a large source of uncertainty for test-takers preparing for an exam generally considered to be the most challenging in the country.

Email to bar exam takers
The email that the California Bar Association sent to exam takers on Saturday night

Those topics are civil procedure; remedies/constitutional law; criminal law and procedure; professional responsibility; and contracts. The State Bar also inadvertently shared the task and topic of the performance test question, which will be a memo format with evidence issues. The agency said in subsequent messages that the leak only affects the state exam. The National Conference of Bar Examiners confirmed its national component of the exam is not affected.

“The good news for exam takers is that it eliminates about a dozen possible essay topics, so they know exactly which essay topics to focus on and which to ignore in their last days of preparation,” said Tammi Rice, vice president of Kaplan Bar Review, one of the largest bar preparation companies in the country.

After completing the written portion of the bar exam on Tuesday, test-takers must then sit for multiple choice questions on Wednesday.

In a message shared on Facebook from interim provost Michael Hunter Schwartz and interim deam Michael Colatrella, the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento told test-takers that “while no one would wish this kind of leak to occur, we encourage you, in your last hours of studying, to take strategic advantage of the information that the State Bar has sent you.”

“You now not only know what subjects will be tested on the essays and performance test, but also you now know in what essays the State Bar will test them. ... Best of luck on the Bar Exam!”

Colatrella did not receive the topics in the initial leak to law school deans. He sent the message to test-takers after the State Bar shared the topics with all test-takers on Saturday night.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Colatrella said, “I don’t think the test is going to be easier,” noting that half of the topics leaked are ones that have been historically tested.

“On balance, it’s brought a lot of stress to the process,” he said.

Attorney Linda Parisi, who is also a professor at Lincoln Law School in Sacramento, echoed Colatrella in saying that she believes “it will still be a rigorous test.”

Disclosure of the topics “will focus candidates to the different areas that are going to be tested,” she said, “but it does not give them what the actual questions will be.”

California’s bar exam sets a higher cutoff score than any bar exams in any other state except Delaware. California’s exam frequently has the lowest pass rate in the country. In February, 31.4 percent of test-takers passed, an increase from the previous year’s pass rate, which was an all-time low.

In 2018, more than 12,000 aspiring practicing lawyers took the California exam according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

In 2017, several law school deans called on the state to reduce the score. That year, the California Supreme Court declined, noting that the pass rate has fluctuated over time and recent drops appeared to be part of a “broader national pattern.”

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.