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California Supreme Court OKs Plan for Bar Exam Narrow Failures

Jan. 28, 2021, 7:28 PM

The California Supreme Court on Thursday approved a plan to let those who narrowly failed the bar exam in recent years to be admitted to the State Bar following completion of 300 hours of supervised legal practice, without retaking another bar exam.

“This means so much to many people,” said 2019 Santa Clara University School of Law graduate Evan Miller. “The bar exam puts your life on hold.”

The court’s unanimous order reverses its initial refusal to make the state’s lower cut score, from 1440 down to 1390, retroactive. That refusal had spurred many who scored in that range, like Miller, to advocate for retroactivity, even though he recently learned that he passed the exam last October.

The order expands the state’s Provisional Licensure Program, first approved by the court last October. The program has allowed 2020 law school graduates who have yet to sit for the exam a limited right to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney until June of 2022, unless the program is extended by the court.

The expanded program will apply to the test takers regardless of when they graduated from law school. The graduates, however, first will need to complete the 300 hours of practice. The State Bar of California will implement the program changes by March 1, according to a court press release.

Graduates also will need to receive a positive evaluation by an eligible supervising lawyer, who now include judges in the California judicial branch.

The ruling will make more than 2,000 additional individuals eligible to apply for provisional licensing, State Bar of California spokeswoman Teresa Ruano said in a statement earlier this month.

The court in August had refused to allow the new passing score to be applied retroactively. The decision had been a rebuke to California law school alumni who had come close to passing the test—and deans, who had become allies in their fight.

Alumni, anxious to start their careers without retaking the test, had argued that the passing score was too high, resulting in a historically low pass rate for the February 2020 bar exam of under 27%.

The issue had become especially important during the pandemic for many beginning-stage Golden State attorneys, often weighted with significant law school loan debt.

On Jan. 8, a State Bar of California panel voted unanimously to expand the state’s existing Provisional Licensure Program, so that it could be applied to individuals who scored 1390 or higher on a bar exam from July of 2015 through February of 2020.

The Bar gave the court two options—graduates could complete either 360 or 600 hours of supervised practice before being admitted—yet the court went even lower than the shortest path to licensure suggested by the bar.

“This is lower than anyone suggested,” Miller said. “It’s better than anyone suggested. A lot of us had been pessimistic.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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