For the first time in nearly a decade, most law school graduates who took the summer California bar exam failed, adding to the pressure on law schools already dealing with plummeting enrollments, complaints about student debt and declining job prospects.
The 48.6% pass rate in California is a drop of nearly 7 percentage points from the previous year; nearly 8,500 people took the test in July. The last time the passage rate dipped below half was in 2005.
Many other states showed similar declines this year. It's unclear why the recent passage rates are so low, but they fell by at least 5 percentage points in 20 states.
The decrease in the number of law school graduates who pass the bar could make it more difficult for schools to attract applicants. As a result, administrators might have to offer further incentives to prospective attorneys, experts say.
Some schools have reduced tuition and increased scholarships, and some have cut staff. Still others are offering dual degrees in an effort to help graduates find jobs.
"Law school deans are in a particularly difficult situation these days," said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University who writes on the business of law.
The bar exam is offered twice a year, in July and February. The number of people who take the July test is traditionally far greater than in February. About 45% of test-takers passed the California bar in February.
Many academics say the drop isn't a concern — at least not yet. "We live in a sound-bite society, but one year does not make a trend," said Gilbert A. Holmes, dean of the University of La Verne College of Law.
In 2008, nearly 62% of people taking the July exam in California passed, but that percentage fell nearly 5 points the following year.
Law school administrators began raising concerns about the most recent scores several months ago. Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, a nonprofit that administers parts of the test, said employees verified that no errors occurred in scoring the exam and instead said the test-takers themselves were to blame for the drop.
"All [factors] point to the fact that the group that sat in July 2014 was less able than the group that sat in July 2013," Moeser wrote in a memo.
Administrators at nearly 80 law schools responded by sending a letter to the national bar group, asking it to investigate how this summer's test was scored and for Moeser to explain her remarks.
"To make such a damning statement of this group of law students, to label them as being as less able based on solely that the average score was lower than the year before, is what got me upset and what got the other deans upset," said Holmes, who signed the administrators' letter.
Moeser said her organization is reviewing the deans' requests.
She said, however, that the organization would not have released the scores "if we weren't confident" in them.
Some say that Moeser's argument could be accurate. The number of first-year law students has fallen nearly 24% from 2010 to 2013, and the incoming class last year was less than 40,000, the smallest in nearly 40 years, according to the American Bar Assn.
Because the pool of applicants has shrunk and schools accept a higher percentage, it's possible that the students' ability also has decreased, especially in the bottom third of classes, said Brian Z. Tamanaha, a law professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
"You have to dig deeper into a smaller pool," he said.
Tamanaha predicted that the downward trend will continue, especially since fewer people apply to law school when the economy improves. "We've accepted many students at high risk of failing the bar."
But many academics said they believe they are still accepting high-quality students. "We admit people who have a realistic chance of passing the bar," said Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
Wu also signed the letter sent to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Hastings began admitting fewer students in 2012, in part because Wu felt there were too many attorneys and not enough jobs. Several other schools, including Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, followed suit.
Muller, the Pepperdine professor, said he didn't believe the drop in bar passage could be entirely explained by the test-takers because the rates fell in so many states. "It strikes me as something internal to the bar," he said.
Wu and others agreed that schools need to do a better job of preparing their graduates for a different work environment where they are much less likely to find stable jobs in large corporate firms.
"The legal profession has always been stressful," he said. "This is the new normal. There will be volatility in the legal profession, in the higher-education system, in the economy. We have to learn to adjust."