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A High Bar for Lawyers

Today, 5,260 people begin taking the state licensing exam. More than half will fail. And keep failing. Just ask the mayor of Los Angeles.

February 21, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

Former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Angela Alioto won't even say how many times she failed the California bar examination before she finally was licensed to practice law.

"Consider it to be several," said the antidiscrimination lawyer and daughter of the late San Francisco mayor and famed antitrust lawyer, Joseph Alioto.

"And understand," she quickly added, "that for the last two years in a row I have been nominated as a national trial lawyer of the year."

Add two former governors, an eminent legal scholar and a former state Supreme Court justice to the ranks of those, like Alioto, who learned the hard way that obtaining a license to practice law in California is hard. In fact, it's harder than in almost every other state.

Of the 5,260 people expected to take the state's bar examination beginning today, more than half are likely to fail, rates from previous years indicate. Some law school graduates, like Alioto, flunk the bar multiple times before finally passing and becoming lawyers.

Others give up.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who graduated from an unaccredited law school, finally called it quits after taking the bar exam four times. His office failed to respond to questions, and Villaraigosa, reached as he entered a downtown restaurant, was at a loss to explain why he had been unable to muster a passing score.

"All I can tell you is that I failed four times," the mayor said.

Failing the bar can be a crushing and humiliating experience, particularly when the applicant has spent months studying or is unaccustomed to failure.

Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School and a former Harvard Law School professor, is considered such a legal superstar that news of her flunking the California bar last year made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Sullivan remains a full law professor at Stanford and is associated with a private law firm.

Although Sullivan is licensed to practice law in New York and Massachusetts, the California Supreme Court last month removed her from litigation over a $500-million licensing dispute because she was not a member of the state bar.

The constitutional scholar, who has argued several times before the U.S. Supreme Court, wasn't eager to talk about the setback, declining to say how much she studied for the bar or how close she came to passing. "That is all past," Sullivan said.

She took a special bar exam for lawyers licensed elsewhere that is shorter than the regular test. Only 28% achieved passing scores.

This time, Sullivan is not taking any chances. She said she has immersed herself in study for the test today.

"I am eating, drinking and sleeping the bar," said the scholar, who is frequently cited as a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

Sullivan's failure, while a surprise to the legal community, attests to the exam's challenge. California's bar "is one of the most difficult," said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

The three-day test is longer than other states' exams. The score needed to pass also is one of the highest, a factor Moeser believes may explain why applicants are significantly more successful in New York than in California, the states with the largest numbers of people taking the bar.

In 2004, only 44% of the 12,448 who took the California bar exam passed. In New York, where the passing score is lower, 62% of the 12,806 passed, according to Moeser and statistics published by the national bar examiners.

Bar officials say the toughness of California's exam ensures that consumers are protected. Moeser surmised that the state also might set the passing score higher because California permits testers who have not graduated from accredited law schools. Most states require testers to graduate from schools accredited by the American Bar Assn.

But even when applicants from only ABA-approved schools are compared, New York still passed a substantially greater percentage than California in 2004, as did most other states.

Oceanside lawyer Donnie R. Cox, who took the bar in 1988 and passed on his first try, recalled a female applicant who wept constantly during the exam while staring into her blue book and wrote not a word. On the second day, Cox said, he brought in earplugs.

Dennis B. Atchley, Cox's law partner, passed on his first try too, in 1976, but the pressure of the experience still haunts him. He said he has a recurring nightmare: Bar examiners inform him they have recalculated his score and he failed. They quickly assure him he can retake the test -- in 10 minutes.

"I have pummeled my wife during that dream," Atchley said.

California's bar requires six essays that can be drawn from among 13 subjects, including contracts, trusts, community property and corporate and constitutional law, in addition to a 200-question multiple-choice test, said Dean Barbieri, director of examinations for the state bar.

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