Safeguard or Barrier: An Empirical Examination of Bar Exam Cut Scores
46 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2021
Date Written: February 25, 2021
In 2019 more than forty percent of aspiring law school graduates failed the bar exam. Nearly thirty thousand test-takers otherwise qualified to practice law were, given the score threshold required to pass the exam (the “cut score”), lost to the profession. Had the cut score been lower, many would now be lawyers. This exclusion disproportionately affects members of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups who stand to benefit most from entry into the legal profession. A common defense for retaining or raising cut scores is that doing so prevents lawyer malfeasance. But the bar exam is not designed for these purposes. This paper enters this scholarly and regulatory conversation by testing whether states’ bar exam scores predict lawyer misconduct. If they do not, it would remove one argument against lowering bar exam cut scores to promote diversity and growth of the legal profession. Using data comprising states’ bar exam cut scores and disciplinary records from the American Bar Association between 2013 and 2018, we employ statistical modeling to evaluate the relationship between cut scores and attorney discipline. We find no evidence that higher bar exam cut scores produce fewer complaints, charges, or disciplinary actions.
Keywords: discipline, malfeasance, bar exam, diversity
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