Dan Walters

Law school enrollment, bar exam passage rate dropping in California

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, seen in 2015 before a speech to the Legislature, has been caught in a conflict between court administrators and a rebel judicial group.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, seen in 2015 before a speech to the Legislature, has been caught in a conflict between court administrators and a rebel judicial group. Associated Press file

It’s not as if California’s massive legal system of attorneys, judges and many thousands of non-lawyer staffers needed another crisis.

While judges from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye down complain that the $3.6 billion court system doesn’t have enough capacity to handle its burgeoning criminal and civil caseload, judges also are squabbling among themselves over how money is allocated.

The feud pits the State Judicial Council, headed by Cantil-Sakauye, and its Administrative Office of the Courts against the Alliance of California Judges, a rebel group that accuses the judicial establishment of starving trial courts while wasting money on a bloated central staff and a dysfunctional statewide case management system. They’re also wrangling over legislation on the allocation of judges to counties.

The State Bar, which licenses lawyers, also has been wracked by conflict and dysfunction – so much so that the Legislature deadlocked last year over whether to continue its authorization to collect operational “dues” from attorneys.

Cantil-Sakauye became embroiled in sharp-elbows negotiations over what reforms would be included in a dues bill, and finally, her Supreme Court temporarily authorized dues collection until the underlying conflict could be resolved.

In response, the State Bar has undertaken some reforms, such as separating its regulatory functions from its professional trade group role, and the legislative conflict is lessening.

However, the State Bar still is enmeshed in a nasty battle with its former executive director, Joseph Dunn, who alleges that he was fired because he blew the whistle when the agency covered up its disciplinary lapses. The State Bar says he was terminated for lying and misuse of public funds, and their battle was the subject of a very nasty arbitration hearing a couple of weeks ago.

That would seem to be enough angst, but another crisis has popped up – a sharply declining rate of passage in the State Bar’s licensing examination.

California, unusually among the states, allows students of non-accredited law schools to take the test, but also has a relatively high test score passage requirement.

Even so, passage rates for first-time test takers had been fairly consistent at around 70 percent until three years ago, when they began to drop sharply – down to 56.1 percent in last July’s version of the twice-yearly testing.

The decline hit graduates of both accredited schools and those lacking American Bar Association accreditation, with the accredited schools dropping from a high of 83.2 percent in 2008 to 62.4 percent last July.

The passage rates are particularly low for non-white students and those from poor families, a state Assembly hearing on the issue this month was told. Meanwhile, the Assembly Judiciary Committee was told, low bar exam passage rates are reducing the supply of lawyers and legal interns to handle the needs of consumers, particularly low-income Californians.

Ed Howard of the Center for Public Interest Law said it means “real consequences for real people.”

The state’s law schools are seeing a very sharp decrease in applications and enrollment, which means less revenue, and could lose their ABA accreditation if their passage rates are persistently low.

Their deans are calling on the State Bar to lower the acceptable passage score, arguing that it is higher than those of other states and hasn’t been evaluated for validity in three decades.

“We have a crisis,” Dunn’s successor as the State Bar’s executive director, Elizabeth Parker, told the committee. She promised a critical look at the bar exam and its passage rate.