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California Officials Consider Bar Exam Options, Possible Changes

July 7, 2021, 10:54 PM

California is trying to determine the future of its bar exam, including by watching what New York is doing as that state considers going its own way to test prospective lawyers’ knowledge.

A blue ribbon commission seated this spring is seeking to answer various questions, including whether a bar exam is the correct tool to determine minimum competence for the practice of law and what specifications should come with alternatives to the test to ensure competency.

The Golden State is home to the nation’s largest bar with 260,000 licensed attorneys. It’s weighing changes to its exam as National Conference of Bar Examiners looks to overhaul at least a portion of the bi-annual test used by California and several other states.

The possible changes reflect a push from in and outside the practice of law for increased diversity and calls to make the exam more relevant to the practice of law.

“Until we understand what we want to the test to do, it’s going to be really tough to figure out what kinds of questions to use, what kinds of testing format we should consider,” James Henderson, a psychometrician who is an expert on designing exams, said during the commission’s inaugural meeting Wednesday.

The discussion comes as the NCBE, which creates the uniform bar exam that is at least part of the tests in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently made a series of recommendations for a new bar exam. The NCBE said the new test will be available in four or five years and eliminate separate UBE components such as the multistate bar exam, the multistate performance test, and the multistate essay exam.

A New York State Bar Association task force last month recommended the state withdraw from the uniform bar exam, and instead develop its own bar admissions test that focuses more directly on state-specific laws.

New York has 184,000 licensed lawyers, according to the American Bar Association.

The California commission members asked bar staff on Wednesday to hear from more subject matter experts, including from a diploma privilege jurisdiction and on non-exam alternatives.

Commission member Ryan Harrison, an official with the Council on Access and Fairness, said he would like to hear from someone from New York who “might be able to speak to the decisions they made and why with respect to their bar examination. Those kinds of considerations could help inform us and the decisions that we have to make as a commission.”

Natalie Rodriguez, assistant dean of academic success at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said she would love to hear more from someone who produced the New York report and the state’s experience with uniform exam, “especially since they’re now considering doing something other than the UBE.”

No matter what, “there will be a new bar exam coming to California, in light of the MBE going away. That will drastically change no matter what we decide what the bar exam will look like in a couple of years,” said Rodriguez.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

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