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Bar gets tougher on ethics exam

Any student who enrolls in law school in 2008 or later and who wishes to become a California lawyer must score higher on the national ethics exam than today’s students, following action by the State Bar Board of Governors to raise the required passing score.

With only one opposing vote, the board voted last month to raise the passing score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) from the current scaled score of 79 to a scaled score of 86. That amounts to between 1.5 and two more correct answers in the 50-question exam. And, converted to a percentage score that most people are more familiar with, it amounts to somewhere between 58 and 66 percent.

The maximum scaled score is 150. The current 79 required for success in California is the equivalent of between 28 and 32 correct answers.

“The idea was to raise attention or the priority of professional responsibility by modestly increasing the passing score,” said Dean Dennis, a Los Angeles attorney who chairs the Committee of Bar Examiners.

The MPRE is a national three-hour multiple choice exam administered three times a year and is required for admission to the bars of all but three U.S. jurisdictions. Most law schools, however, do not require professional responsibility as part of their curriculum.

The current California passing requirement was among the lowest in the nation. The new score makes it the highest, along with Utah.

The committee asked the board in 2004 to boost the required passing score to 100, but the board opted to send the proposal back to committee. Opponents to the higher score said it could hurt minority students, force all students to focus on the minutiae of rules and would do nothing to build character or produce better lawyers. The committee suggested that a higher score “will require that all who seek admission in California have an increased knowledge of the rules that govern their professional activities, and it seems reasonable to expect that the increased knowledge level

. . . will ultimately increase the protection of consumers of legal services in California.”

Dorothy Tucker, a public board member from Los Angeles, cast the lone opposing vote because she said the committee did not present a compelling argument to make a change. “It looked like window-dressing to me,” she said.

The change will not take effect until 2008, so no current law students will be affected.

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