Bar Exam

New ABA data parses out bar exam pass rates by race and ethnicity

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According to data released Tuesday by the American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, 87.65% of the white candidates who took a bar exam for the first time in 2020 passed. For people of other races or ethnicities, the first-time pass rate ranged from 66.28% to 79.92%.

According to the data, in 2020 there were 19,453 first-time test-takers who were white. Among other first-time test-takers:

  • The pass rate for Asians was 79.92% out of a total of 1,972 candidates.
  • The pass rate for Native Americans was 78.02% out of a total of 182 candidates.
  • The pass rate for Hawaiians was 77.5% out of a total of 40 candidates.
  • The pass rate for Hispanics was 75.59% out of a total of 3,638 candidates.
  • The pass rate for Blacks was 66.28% out of a total of 2,328 candidates.

Additionally, the data said the pass rate for a total of 1,020 first-time test-takers of mixed race was 81.76%. There were 182 test-takers who were nonresidents of the U.S., and their pass rate was 86.34%.

According to the data, there was a total of 29,531 first-time bar exam candidates in 2020, and the pass rate was 83%, not including individuals in jurisdictions with diploma privilege.

In 2019, the council of the section revised an ABA standard to require accredited law schools have a two-year bar pass rate of at least 75%. Discussion around the change included concerns that there was no national data about bar passage rates for different racial and ethnic groups.

“We promised to collect and publish such aggregate data and consider whether the requirements of the standard needed to be reconsidered in light of what we collected. This report is consistent with that promise and will be further evaluated in the months to come,” Bill Adams, ABA managing director of accreditation and legal education, said in a news release.

Regarding two-year pass rates, which are based on people who graduated from law school in 2018:

  • The pass rate for whites was 92.91% out of a total of 20,101 test-takers.
  • The pass rate for Asians was 88.2% out of a total of 2,170 test-takers.
  • The pass rate for Native Americans was 86.46% out of a total of 192 test-takers.
  • The pass rate for Hispanics was 84.45% out of a total of 3,808 test-takers.
  • The pass rate for Blacks was 79.29% out of a total of 2,641 test-takers.
  • The pass rate for Hawaiians was 71.43% out of a total of 35 test-takers.

Among test-takers of mixed race in the two-year category, the pass rate was 88.07% out of 939 test-takers. For nonresidents, the pass rate was 89.59% out of 922 test-takers.

The two-year pass rate category had a total of 32,047 test-takers and a pass rate of 90%.

The race and ethnicity categories are also parsed out by gender. White women in 2020 had a first-time pass rate of 88.11%, which was the highest. The first-time pass rate for Black men in 2020 was 62.55%, which was the lowest.

For two-year pass rates, the pass rate for white men was 93%, which was the highest. The lowest was for Hawaiian women, who had a 70.83% pass rate. The pool size in those two groups had significant differences. There was a total of 10,771 white men and 24 Hawaiian women.

Joan Howarth, a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Law Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law, has been researching the bar exam for many years. She notes that overall, pass rates increased in 2020, and that’s good for the profession.

“The real story is the continuing racial and ethnic disparities in pass rates. Maybe 2021 is the year that state courts, bar examiners, law professors, ABA leaders and members of the profession at every level decide to tackle that problem with the urgency it deserves. Until we do, the public suffers from a misshapen profession,” the former Michigan State law school dean wrote in an email to the ABA Journal.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners designs the bar exam. In a statement, the NCBE said it is difficult to draw specific conclusions based on the “limited data” the ABA released Tuesday. They cited a recent AccessLex study that studied New York bar pass rates. That study found that bar passage increased when people picked up their study time, and law school debt and unemployment after the bar exam were negatively associated with first-time bar passage.

“As shown in recent studies, use of additional information about candidates (e.g., law school GPA and LSAT scores) is a better way to begin to understand the complex interactions among racial identity, social capital, educational experiences and performance on the bar examination or other assessments,” the NCBE statement reads.

Updated at 4:45 p.m. to include statement from National Conference of Bar Examiners.

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