Draft work in progress: "The High Cost of Lowering the Bar"

My colleague Rob Anderson and I have posted a draft article, The High Cost of Lowering the Bar on SSRN. From the abstract:

In this Essay, we present data suggesting that lowering the bar examination passing score will likely increase the amount of malpractice, misconduct, and discipline among California lawyers. Our analysis shows that bar exam score is significantly related to likelihood of State Bar discipline throughout a lawyer’s career. We investigate these claims by collecting data on disciplinary actions and disbarments among California-licensed attorneys. We find support for the assertion that attorneys with lower bar examination performance are more likely to be disciplined and disbarred than those with higher performance.

Although our measures of bar performance only have modest predictive power of subsequent discipline, we project that lowering the cut score would result in the admission of attorneys with a substantially higher probability of State Bar discipline over the course of their careers. But we admit that our analysis is limited due to the imperfect data available to the public. For a precise calculation, we call on the California State Bar to use its internal records on bar scores and discipline outcomes to determine the likely impact of changes to the passing score.

We were inspired by the lack of evidence surrounding costs that may be associated with lowering the "cut score" required to pass the California bar, and we offered this small study as one data point toward that end. The Wall Street Journal cited the draft this week, and we've received valuable feedback from a number of people. We welcome more feedback! (We also welcome publication offers!)

The paper really does two things--identifies the likelihood of discipline associated with the bar exam score, and calls on the State Bar to engage in more precise data collection and analysis when evaluating the costs and benefits of changing the cut score.

It emphatically does not do several things. For instance, it does not identify causation and identifies a number of possible reasons for the disparity (at pp. 12-13 of the draft). Additionally, it simply identifies a cost--lower the cut score will likely increase attorneys subject to discipline. It does not make any effort to weigh that cost--it may well be the case that the State Bar views the cost as acceptable given the trade-off of benefits (e.g., more attorneys, more access to justice, etc.) (see pp. 11-12 of the draft). Or it might be the case that the occupational licensing of the state bar and the risk of attorney discipline should not hinge on correlation measures like bar exam score.

There are many, for instance, who have been thoughtfully critically of the bar exam and would likely agree that our findings are accurate but reject that they should be insurmountable costs. Consider thoughtful commentary from Professor Deborah Jones Merritt at the Law School Cafe, who has long had careful and substantive critiques about the use of the bar exam generally.

It has been our hope that these costs are addressed in a meaningful, substantial, and productive way. We include many caveats in our findings for that reason.

Unfortunately, not everyone has reacted to this draft that way.

The Daily Journal (print only) solicited feedback on the work with a couple of salient quotations. First:

Bar Trustee Joanna Mendoza said she agreed the study should not be relied on for policy decisions.

“I am not persuaded by the study since the professors did not have the data available to prove their hypothesis,” she said.

We feel confident in our modest hypothesis--that attorneys with lower bar exam scores are subject to higher rates of discipline. We use two methods to support this. We do not have individualized data that would allow us the precision of measuring the precise effect, but we are confident in this major hypothesis.

Worse, however, is the disappointing answer. Our draft expressly calls on the State Bar to study the data! While we can only roughly address the impact at the macro level, we call on the bar to use data for more precise information! We do hope that the California State Bar would do so. But it appears it will not--at least, not unless it has already planned on doing so:

Bar spokeswoman Laura Ernde did not directly address questions about the Pepperdine professors’ study or their call for the bar to review its internal data, including non-public discipline. Ernde wrote in an email that the agency would use its ongoing studies to make recommendations to the Supreme Court about the bar exam.

Second are the remarks from David L. Faigman, dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law. Dean Faigman has been one of the most vocal advocates for lowering the cut score (consider this Los Angeles Times opinion piece.) His response:

Among his many critiques, Faigman said the professors failed to factor in a number of variables that impact whether an attorney is disciplined. 

“If they were to publish it in its current form, it would be about as irresponsible a product of empirical scholarship I could imagine putting out for public consumption,” Faigman said. “God forbid anybody of policy authority should rely on that manuscript.”

It's hard to know how to address a critique when the epithet "irresponsible" is the substance of the critique.

We concede many variables that may cause attorney discipline (pp. 12-13), and the paper makes no attempt to address that. Instead, we're pointing out that lower bar scores correlate with higher discipline rates; and lowering the score further would likely result in still higher discipline rates. Yes, many factors go into discipline--but the consequence of lowering the cut score will still remain, a consequence of higher discipline.

And our call for policy authorities to "rely" on the manuscript is twofold--to consider that there are actual costs to lowering the cut score, and to use more data to more carefully evaluate those costs. Both, I think, are valuable things for a policy authority to "rely" upon.

We hope that the paper sparks a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion than the one that has been waged in lobbying the State Bar and state legislature so far. We hardly know what the "right" cut score is, or the full range of costs and benefits that arise at varying changes to the cut score of the bar exam. But we hope decisionmakers patiently and seriously engage with these costs and benefits in the months--and, perhaps ideally, years--ahead.