California needs lawyers who reflect its diversity

By Leah T. Wilson, Special to CALmatters

As she often does, Kim Kardashian rocked the social media world by revealing that she is studying to be a lawyer.

Ms. Kardashian is taking an unconventional route. Instead of going to law school, she is availing herself of a little-known program developed by the State Bar of California that enables aspiring applicants to study under a California lawyer or judge.

It works like this:

  • Students must study at least 18 hours weekly under active supervision.
  • They must file regular progress reports.
  • They need to pass the standard exam for first-year law students.

It is a very challenging route, which few pursue. Certainly, none of the others who attempt it have Ms. Kardashian’s privileges. But the existence of the program continues a long California tradition of openness to unconventional pathways to the law.

California needs lawyers who reflect the state’s rich diversity. Recognizing the importance of this, lawmakers recently amended the State Bar’s public protection mission to include the furthering of diversity and inclusion in the profession. Admittedly, we have a long way to go.

Fostering diversity in the profession is why we offer more entrance routes than any other state. You can go to an elite American Bar Association-accredited law school. You can go to a California accredited school or a registered (unaccredited) school. You can study online or by correspondence. Or you can take Ms. Kardashian’s route.

Of course, all aspiring new lawyers equally face the high hurdle of the California bar exam. It has a reputation of being notoriously difficult. Pass rates have been declining. Of great concern when aiming to increase the profession’s diversity, first-time pass rates are disproportionately lower among students of color.

Some have called for lowering the cut score. Others believe that is not the best solution. Lowering the cut score is a decision that only the California Supreme Court can make. The court has directed us to work on the problem holistically. That is what we at the State Bar are doing.

For example, students studying for this July’s bar exam can apply now for a free online program to help them prepare.

Called the California Strategies and Stories Program, this trial effort showed great promise in initial testing last year, boosting pass rates among students who completed it. We hope many students will take advantage of the program this year. We believe it will help them as it helps us assess and refine the program’s value for future test takers.

Also this summer, for the first time, we will ask practicing California attorneys for detailed input on the skills and knowledge needed by people entering the profession. Their insights will help us evaluate the relevance of bar exam content. We also are scrutinizing bar exam questions and scoring to excise any possible unintended bias for diverse test takers.

Most entrants to California’s legal profession come through the state’s law schools. Many law schools’ efforts to increase diversity have been laudable, but we must do more.

  • We need to better understand why students of color leave law school before graduation at disproportionate rates.
  • We need better data on the efficacy of popular pipeline efforts that foster interest in the law in high school and continue through community colleges to four-year colleges and law schools.
  • And we need stronger collaboration on many levels rather than focusing on overly simplistic debates.

Recognizing the importance of these efforts, the State Bar’s Board of Trustees has set diversity objectives with deadlines. Long before Ms. Kardashian takes her bar exam a few years from now, we expect to show measurable progress toward a more diverse legal profession within our great Golden State.

By Leah T. Wilson is executive director of State Bar of California, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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