California High Court Clears Law Licensing Pathway in Place of Bar Exam

The California Supreme Court opened up an attorney licensing program to some 2,000 bar applicants who scored 1390 or higher on the exam since July 2015.

In this September 2020 photo, several recent law school graduates protested the California Supreme Court’s refusal to make the state bar exam’s new lower passing score retroactive. (Courthouse News photo / Maria Dinzeo)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In what is sure to be a relief for many law school graduates anxious to launch their legal careers, the California Supreme Court agreed to extend a temporary licensing program to those who sat for the bar in the last five years and scored high enough to meet the new minimum passing threshold.

Those who scored 1390 or higher on the bar exam between July 2015 and February 2020 will be allowed to practice law without having to sit for the bar again, provided they complete 300 hours of supervised legal practice.

The court which oversees the State Bar permanently lowered the bar exam passing score from 1440 to 1390 last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but only for those taking the test in October 2020 and beyond.  

The justices also declined to make the lower passing score retroactive to past years, but their decision Thursday opens up a path to full licensure for some 2,000 bar applicants. The new rule takes effect March 1.

The provisional licensure program essentially functions as an apprenticeship. Participants must be employed by or have an offer from a law firm based in California and must practice under the watch of a current judge or licensed supervising lawyer in good standing with the bar.

According to the rules set by the State Bar, participants must refer to themselves as “provisionally licensed” to clients, potential clients and in court pleadings. They cannot imply in any way that they are a fully licensed lawyer.

The program has already drawn significant interest since this past October when the Supreme Court approved it for 2020 law graduates.

At a meeting on Jan. 8, State Bar trustee Hailyn Chen said 603 applicants had been approved. Those participants must pass the bar exam by June 1, 2022. 

By Thursday, the State Bar said the program has had 1,270 applicants.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, the board of trustees voted to extend the provisional licensure program to law graduates who scored 1390 or higher since July 2015 and make it an alternative pathway to full licensure for those applicants. 

The committee’s vote sent the matter to the high court where it was discussed at the justices’ weekly conference on Wednesday.

The temporary program is currently set to end on June 1, 2022, unless the court decides to extend it.

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