What We Do
Working as an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, the State Bar oversees all activities required for admitting attorneys to the practice of law in the nation’s most populous state. The State Bar develops, administers, and grades the California Bar Examination and conducts moral character investigations required for admission.
California offers more pathways to the law than any other state. The agency administers programs for several admissions pathways beyond graduation from a traditional, nationally accredited law school.
Designed to broaden access to the legal profession, these multiple pathways also create unique challenges for the State Bar’s admissions system.
Bar exam applicants
Applicants granted testing accommodations
Moral character applications
Provisionally licensed lawyers approved
The pandemic had tremendously challenging repercussions for law students and bar applicants. It hindered in-person classes and forced the California Supreme Court to order a delay in the bar exam, postponing when new admittees could begin earning a living as a lawyer. As the extended duration of the pandemic became clear, the Supreme Court ordered the State Bar to rapidly transform its exam and admissions processes to address these challenges. The State Bar:
- Administered the first-ever remote bar exam in October, which was also the first exam under a reduced cut score. A near-record 9,300 applicants, the largest cohort in the nation, took the California exam; 8,920 remotely.
- Made safe in-person testing available at six locations statewide for 380 examinees whose testing accommodations plans could not be executed remotely or who had extenuating circumstances preventing remote testing.
- Streamlined exam grading, reviewed thousands of videos in the new remote proctoring process, and expedited results, which were announced January 8, 2021, a week earlier than originally estimated. The reduced cut score helped boost the pass rate to 60.7 percent, the highest in more than a decade.
- Under the Supreme Court’s direction, launched the state’s first-ever provisional licensure program in mid-November 2020. This new program enabled 2020 law school graduates to begin practicing law without taking a bar exam. Those provisionally licensed will have until June 1, 2022, to take the exam. By year-end 2020, more than 1,100 had applied for provisional licensure, and nearly 600 applications had been approved.
- An expansion to the provisional licensure program approved in early 2021 makes eligible those who took the exam from July 2015 on and achieved a score that would now be a passing score. The expansion provides this group a pathway to licensure through supervised practice hours that will enable them to avoid retaking the exam.
Eliminating potential bias in exam content and grading
In 2019, the State Bar subjected its bar exam content to a rigorous Differential Item Functioning (DIF) analysis to evaluate whether the questions themselves exhibited bias. The analysis considered three primary variables: gender, race/ethnicity, and law school type. While the overall results of the DIF study reported no major areas of concern with respect to either gender or race/ethnicity, in 2020, the Board of Trustees established a working group to review the DIF analysis and develop guidelines for minimizing the risk of DIF in future bar exam questions. The working group is expected to complete its review and make recommendations in fall 2021.
Beginning with the February 2020 exam, those involved in developing, testing, and grading exam questions have been required to participate in annual unconscious bias/implicit bias training. Exam proctors also received this training beginning with the October 2020 exam.
Lastly, the State Bar is also using outreach strategies to diversify its exam grader pool.
Increasing consistency and transparency in moral character determinations
A positive moral character determination is one of several requirements for admission to the practice of law in California. In 2020, the State Bar published revised guidelines and decision-making tools for its moral character determinations. The new guidelines ensure greater uniformity and consistency in decision-making, provide transparency into the moral character evaluation process, and ensure that the State Bar gives appropriate consideration for rehabilitative efforts undertaken by applicants. A major emphasis of this effort was addressing how criminal history is taken into account in the moral character determination process.
Streamlining accreditation rules
California offers a unique array of education choices for law study. While many states allow law study only at schools accredited by the American Bar Association, California broadens access by offering its own accreditation—including for fully online programs—and allowing study at nonaccredited, registered schools. In 2020, the State Bar’s Committee of State Bar Accredited and Registered Schools and Committee of Bar Examiners undertook an intensive effort to revamp California’s accreditation rules. The revamp was built around four key principles: consumer protection and transparency; student success; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and preparation for licensure and professionalism. The final rules were adopted in May 2021.