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Bar Passage Rates and the California Bar Exam

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, Dec 16, 2016

As we congratulate the members of the Class of 2016 who passed the California bar exam, many have asked about the School of Law’s overall passage rate.  Last week, the State Bar notified us that our first time bar passage rate for the July 2016 bar examination was 72%, a drop from 74% last year and 86% the year previous to that. 

This year, California bar exam takers posted the lowest overall passage rate in many years, prompting general concern.  Patched in below is a statement that I today shared with the Daily Journal. 

Please know that the administration and law faculty will be closely examining the data and looking at ways to ensure that we do our very best for all King Hall bar takers.

Here is the statement I provided to the Daily Journal:

UC Davis School of Law, as it always has, strives to provide the high quality education, services, and support that will maximize the chances of our alumni passing the California bar exam on the first attempt.  We fully understand the employment and other consequences of passing the bar.  Historically, UC Davis has been successful, with well over 90% of our graduates having passed the California bar exam on the first or second attempt.

As has been well reported, the California bar passage rate has been in decline, from an overall bar passage rate of 61.7% in 2008 to 43% in 2016.  The latest bar passage numbers are among the lowest in more than thirty years (and the third lowest July passage rate since 1951).

For first-time takers of American Bar Association accredited California law schools, the pass-rate on the July 2016 bar exam was 62%.  By way of comparison, New York’s bar-pass rate was 83%.  This wide disparity warrants careful scrutiny.

The California State Bar has informed UC Davis School of Law that its first time bar passage rate for the July 2016 exam was 72%, down from 74% in 2015 and 86 percent in 2014.  This decline occurred even though the median Law School Admission Test and Undergraduate Grade Point Average of our entering students has been relatively constant over the time period.  That fact makes one wonder what has triggered the decline and whether the grading of the California bar exam is becoming stricter.    

Considerable press coverage has focused attention on the national decline in law school applications.  Claims have been made that law schools are admitting students who are less qualified than in the past.  UC Davis and some other law schools, however, have reduced the size of entering classes and maintained the numerical quality of the student body.  We have made conscious efforts not to admit students who the law faculty did not think could succeed on the bar examination and as practicing attorneys. Still, in light of the declines in the bar passage rates in California and other states, one must consider whether the general press about law students has resulted in more exacting grading of the bar exam.

Moreover, one might expect bar passage improvements in light of the fact that UC Davis School of Law, as well as other law schools, in recent years has greatly expanded the academic support and services available to law students.  Not that many years ago, many law schools did not have such programs and services.  UC Davis School of Law today has an academic support director and a staff dedicated to academic support during law school and through passing the bar exam.  We will continue to evaluate and hone that support and those services.

Law schools today take bar passage seriously.  It is important to applicants, students, faculty, universities, and alumni.  Unfortunately, we cannot expect improvements in bar passage rates if grading bar exam standards are silently being raised.  That just may be the case with the California bar examination.