Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lowering the Bar

By Walter Whitman Moore

Some people think it's just too darn hard to get a license to sue in California. Exhibit A is an article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, "California bar exam’s passing score should be lowered, critics say." These critics point out that just 43% of the people who took the bar exam in November passed. 

Now, if you were among the 57% who shelled out for three years of law school without passing the bar, you might think you were a victim of educational malpractice. After all, as we learned from The Paper Chase, law school is supposed to take students with skulls full of mush and teach them to think like lawyers:

Judging from the test results, more than half of California's law school students graduate with their mush intact, unable to think like lawyers. However, the law school deans who gladly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in tuition from each of the failed 57% wannabe lawyers for three years say the problem isn't their professors' failure to teach. Instead, the deans say, the test is just too difficult. Their solution is lower standards. According to the article, the deans of 20 California law schools wrote to the California Supreme Court, asking for the minimum passing grade to be lowered “unless or until we have strong justification for the benefits of California’s approach.”

Since when do we lower standards in this country? Do we really need dumber lawyers? And why stop with law? I bet plenty of people fail to pass their medical boards. Why not just say that 90% of each test group will pass? Ditto for pilots, engineers, architects, and rocket scientists. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. Everything could go wrong. Law is complicated. When your life, liberty, property, income and/or reputation are on the line, you want a lawyer smart enough to understand the fine distinctions on which your fate might depend.

The article points out that other states have lower standards for lawyers. So what? How does that justify lowering ours? California has higher standards than other states for air quality, too. We like our air clean and our lawyers smart -- so sue us.

There was a great line in Martha, Inc., a made-for-TV movie about Martha Stewart, starring Cybill Shepherd. Stewart is standing in the aisle of a K-Mart, examining the products on the shelves with disdain. She says something to the effect that K-Mart is going to have to increase the thread count, and a K-Mart executive responds by saying something about how expensive that would be. Stewart then tells the K-Mart executive, "You don't understand. I'm not here to lower myself to your standards. I'm here to raise you to mine."

The appropriate solution here isn't easier tests, but better education. Rather than urging the Supreme Court to adopt an easier test, the deans of California's law schools should focus their attention on producing graduates who can think like lawyers.

Walter Whitman Moore is a business trial lawyer in Beverly Hills. His website is


  1. Here are the detailed statistics from the State Bar:

  2. Thank you, Emily Barsh, for telling me about this story and coming up with the very clever summary: "Lowering the Bar."

  3. I feel that the current CA bar exam is too easy. In Japan, most law graduates cannot pass the bar exam. I like a pass rate of 2-3%. Japan recently watered down its bar exam, so the pass rate is 25%: "Law schools are apparently reacting to grim bar-passage rates. Last year, only 25 percent of test takers passed the Japanese bar exam, the lowest rate since 2006 when a reformulated test was offered, the story says. Before that, only 2 percent to 3 percent passed the bar."