The COVID-19 Pandemic Brings Significant Changes to the California Bar Examination

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By Juan M. Villalvazo

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in recent months on the legal profession’s most important requisite for licensure—the Bar exam. With giant convention centers full of thousands of test-takers being infeasible during the pandemic, the California Supreme Court ordered the State Bar to come up with alternatives to in-person administration of the July 2020 Bar exam on April 27, 2020, and postponed the July exam to September 9–10, 2020. The order came after the Committee of Bar Examiners’ (CBE) March 30, 2020 emergency and special meeting over teleconference in which the Committee considered and heard extensive public comments with respect to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, including a multitude of comments from law students, and the Bar’s subsequent April 15, 2020 letter to the Supreme Court, summarizing the Bar’s recommendations for proceeding. [25:2 CRLR 104–107]  Over the next few months, CBE considered multiple options, including: a delayed in-person exam, a remote online exam, and the provision of “diploma privilege,” which would automatically grant a license to practice law to the class of 2020 law graduates without having to take the Bar exam. The Board of Trustees also continued to receive voluminous public comments—mostly from law students—during its meetings on this topic.

On July 16, 2020, the California Supreme Court sent a letter to the State Bar, acknowledging the continued challenges presented by the pandemic, its conversations with the National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the actions being taken by other states, and the letters and comments they had received from law students, deans, and the public.  The Court announced that it would cancel the September administration of the exam and ordered the State Bar to instead administer the exam in an online format on October 5–6, 2020. In addition, the Court announced that it would permanently lower the passing score on the Bar exam to 1390, beginning with the October administration of the exam, citing the Bar’s 2017 standard-setting study as well as recent data from ongoing studies about the Bar exam as justification for the new score. [see 23:1 CRLR 158–161]. Finally, the Court declined to allow diploma privilege for law students, citing California’s unique circumstances in that there are nearly four dozen law schools which are not accredited by the American Bar Association in the state, and the need to find a solution that would not exclude all graduates of those schools.  Instead, the Court directed the Bar to “implement, as soon as possible, a temporary supervised provisional licensure program—a limited license to practice specified areas of law under the supervision of a licensed attorney.”  According to the letter, this program will be made available for all 2020 graduates of law schools based in California or those 2020 graduates of law schools outside California who are permitted to sit for the California Bar Examination under Business and Professions Code sections 6060 and 6061.

On August 10, 2020 the California Supreme Court formally issued Administrative Order 2020-08-10 Concerning Modifications to the California Bar Examination.  The order directs the State Bar to administer the October 5–6, 2020 Bar exam online and permanently reduces the passing score of the exam to 1390 beginning with the October administration of the exam. The order and accompanying letter to the Bar declined to retroactively apply the lowered passing score to previous administrations of the exam, which had been requested by many law school deans and legislators.  The order prompted Assembly Member Mark Stone, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, to introduce House Resolution 103 on August 18, 2020, which “strongly encourages” the California Supreme Court to make the new 1390 cut score retroactive to July 2015.

At CBE’s October 16, 2020 meeting, staff reported that the administration of the October Bar Exam went well with few technical issues.

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