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California Supreme Court Calls for Investigation of Bar Exam Topic Leak

Close up of hands of student doing test.
By Laura Temme, Esq. on August 07, 2019

Last week, California’s notoriously difficult bar exam got even more complicated.

Just a few days before the test, the six topic areas set to appear on the essay portion of the exam leaked to the deans of 16 law schools. Many thought the email was a hoax or assumed the information was confidential. Once bar officials were alerted to the mistake, they elected to then reveal the topics to the roughly 9,000 people registered to take the July exam.

In the days that followed, students and bar officials alike grappled with what the leak would mean for test-takers. Some believed the test-takers now had an unfair advantage, while others focused on the added stress the leak would bring to those who had already spent months studying.

How Did This Happen?

The topic list appears to have been released by mistake when a bar staffer drafted a memo that typically goes out after the exam concludes each year. The memo invited law school deans to a grading session for the July 2019 exam and listed the six topics covered in the essay section – asking deans to rank which items they would like to attend the grading of.

Whether any of the deans passed the topics on to students before bar officials opted to release them is unclear. But, the deans who received the memo have requested a meeting with the state bar as well as the California Supreme Court to investigate the disclosure further. In a statement issued July 29th, the Supreme Court vowed to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of the disclosure.

Bar Applicants Demanding Refunds

Bar officials are already seeing an impact on July’s exam stemming from the topic disclosure. Approximately 8% of applicants failed to show up for the exam last week, a higher percentage than in previous years. The California State Bar has also reported that nearly 600 applicants requested refunds due to the leak.

Will this incident push California toward adopting the Uniform Bar Exam? Maybe. In any case, it will almost certainly lead to a change in who is allowed access to exam information.

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