After State Bar of California exam leak, hundreds of no-show applicants ask for a refund

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After the State Bar of California leaked essay topics prior to last week’s bar exam, the no-show rate for the exam rose from previous years and hundreds of applicants are asking for refunds.

Teresa Ruano, a spokeswoman for the State Bar, said that 768 applicants did not show up to take the bar last Tuesday and Wednesday, representing approximately 8 percent of all applicants for the July exam. The no-show rate for the past two July exams were around 6.6 percent.

Ruano said that as of Tuesday morning, the State Bar is anticipating refunding 575 applicants. The number is fluctuating as the State Bar is still processing refund requests. According to the State Bar’s webpage on bar exam fees, that would mean returning hundreds of thousands of dollars to applicants.

On the Thursday before the exam, the State Bar leaked essay topics to 16 law school deans. It said that it did so accidentally, and on Saturday night, it sent the topics to all applicants in “an attempt to level the playing field.”

In an unprecedented move, the State Bar also told applicants that it would provide a full refund to people who requested refunds from Saturday night up until the start of the exam. The State Bar normally refunds part of the cost of taking the exam, depending on when the applicant requests a refund, according to its webpage..

Abraham Sanchez, 25, who took the bar last week, said that he believes people asked for refunds due to the stress that the essay topics leak caused.

Many people were afraid that the law school deans who received the topics on Thursday night may have shared the topics, meaning that some applicants had early access to the topics before the State Bar publicly shared them on Saturday night, he said.

He added that some practicing attorneys also placed pressure on test-takers, noting that they commented on social media that last week’s exam was easier because of the leak.

The pressure was “two-fold,” he said. “If you don’t pass it having known the topics, it’s like, ‘wow you can’t even pass knowing the topics.’ If you do pass, you’re de-legitimized (by practicing attorneys).”

Sanchez said that he personally felt increased stress after the leak: “With such a limited amount of time, I felt like I needed to kick it up and study all the way [up to the start of the exam] and speculate about subtopics.”

Jessica Rivera, 28, who is graduating law school in December, said that among her peers who planned to take the bar last week, the leak inflamed anxiety.

“It made a lot of people more nervous, especially because (the topics) only came out two days before,” she said. “It started a lot of panic.”

California’s bar exam often has the lowest pass rate in the country. The California bar sets a higher cutoff score than all other states except Delaware.

Several law school deans called on the state to lower the cutoff score in 2017. The state Supreme Court declined at the time, saying that recent drops in pass rate seem to be part of a “broader national pattern.”

Scores for July’s exam will be released on November 15.

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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.