A State Bar of California panel approved a plan to allow the potential licensing of more than 2,000 new lawyers that narrowly failed bar exams in recent years.
The attorneys would be admitted without re-taking the exams, under the plan, which still needs approval from the California Supreme Court. The Bar’s Board of Trustees executive committee unanimously approved the proposal Friday.
Officials at a Zoom meeting hailed the plan as a needed fix for exam takers whose margin of failure in the tests was narrow. The vote is the latest in a series of steps by state officials in response to the pandemic.
The plan would expand the existing Provisional Licensure Program and apply to individuals who scored 1390 or higher on a bar exam from July of 2015 through February of 2020. That would effectively make retroactive the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to lower the passing score from 1440 to 1390.
It would apply to the test takers regardless of when they graduated from law school. The graduates, however, would first need to complete between 360 and 600 hours of supervised legal practice, depending on which of two options the court chooses, should it approve the proposal.
The graduates would need to receive a positive evaluation by an eligible supervising lawyer. These lawyers would include judges in the California judicial branch.
The high court, if it approves the plan, will back off its previous refusal to allow the new passing score to be applied retroactively.
The court is expected to take this issue up on January 21, “and we can expect a decision not long after,” said Board of Trustee member Hailyn Chen, who headed up the working group on the issue.
If approved, the expansion would make more than 2,000 additional individuals eligible to apply for provisional licensing, said State Bar of California spokeswoman Teresa Ruano in a statement.
Chelsea Stone, a 2018 law school grad who called into the hearing, told the Bar panel that she received a score of 1390 in the February 2019 test but has taken every exam since to try to reach 1440.
“Due to the turbulent state of California and our country, the importance of having zealous, determined advocates is crucial,” Stone said. “Those of us who have received a score of 1390 have not stopped fighting and contributing to the legal community.”
The issue has become paramount during the pandemic for many beginning-stage attorneys, who are often saddled with significant loan debt and who are anxious to start their careers.
A coalition of recent law school graduates twice failed in their bids to enact a permanent licensing alternative, called diploma privilege, as a response to the coronavirus.
But they did persuade the state bar and the state’s high court to implement a provisional licensing program. That program, approved by the court last July and implemented Oct. 22, was open to anyone eligible to sit for the California bar exam between Dec. 1, 2019 and Dec. 31, 2020.
To participate, applicants needed to have an offer of employment, or a commitment to volunteer with a legal services organization, corporate legal department, law firm or government agency.
As of Jan. 5, 1,131 people had applied to take part in the program, out of which 603 had been approved, according to Ruano.
The program is set to continue through June 21, 2022, after which participants will need to pass the test to remain licensed.
Meanwhile, California plans to hold its next test remotely and online in late February—as it suffers more fallout from the October online test.
Last year, exam administrators moved the second of the twice-annual tests, slated for late July, to September. It was then moved to October, when it was held online for the first time.
That exam spurred a number of complaints about technical issues, and it prompted privacy and racial discrimination concerns because of the test’s facial recognition software.
Most recently, about one-third of the roughly 9,000 test takers were flagged by the state’s bar exam software contractor, ExamSoft, for possible cheating. Since then, state bar officials have dropped that number down to some 400, who are still being investigated.