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California Sets the Bar Even Higher

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Californians sometimes have the reputation of setting themselves apart from the other states. After all, their state is unique in a lot of ways.

For one, as you probably know, it's exceptionally expensive. The Golden State is appropriately named for the steep price tag that comes with living there. California boasts stunning coastlines and a climate that's the envy of many, but this paradise comes at a price. From sky-high housing costs to some of the highest gas prices in the country, the state consistently ranks as one of the most expensive.

For another, as lawyers will know, California has an idiosyncratic bar exam. This is partly due to the historical background of California's legal system. It developed differently from many other states due to the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, which brought a rapid influx of people and legal issues. As a result, California's legal system and legal education evolved independently.

To the dismay of aspiring legal practitioners in the state, these two factors have now combined to make the cost to practice law there even more expensive.

Complex, Costly, and Competitive

For several reasons, the California bar exam is often considered to be the hardest in the country. California's legal system is known for its complexity. The state has its own set of laws, regulations, and precedents that often differ significantly from federal laws and those of other states. This includes subjects that are specific to California law, such as community property, California civil procedure, and professional responsibility rules tailored to the state's legal system. These subjects are not part of the bar exams in other states, so a specialized bar exam is required to ensure that lawyers practicing in California are well-versed in the state's legal framework.

In addition, California has traditionally set high standards for its legal professionals. Combine this with the fact that it is the most populous state, and you get historically low pass rates. But on top of California's exam being difficult to pass, it is now even more challenging in its affordability. This is a decision tied to trying to balance the state's budget.

Bar Admissions to Balance Budget

About a year ago, the state's finances looked optimistic when the projected budget had the highest surplus in its history. But all of that took a hairpin turn last fall, and the state now faces a $31.7 billion deficit. Simultaneously, the state bar's admissions fund was up against a deficit of nearly $8 million in 2024.

What could the government do about it? The state bar had proposed raising the annual fees for California-accredited law schools by almost 1000%, from $2,170 to $22,900. But after those schools raised concerns over the financial impact, the state's board of trustees declined to take this route. Instead, the trustees chose to significantly increase fees to sit for the state's bar exam, which hadn't been done since 2016.

For test-takers who are not already licensed in another bar jurisdiction, the combined cost of the exam and laptop fee will go from $830 to $1,003 for law graduates. The cost for their moral character determination fee will go from $551 to $725. This latter cost is an evaluation of an applicant's moral and ethical fitness to practice law. It is a separate and distinct requirement from passing the bar exam itself, and is standard among all bar jurisdictions, not just California.

For those already licensed to practice law in another jurisdiction, the fee increases will be different. In general, attorneys that already passed the bar in one state have to pay more in bar admission fees for another state than law grads taking the exam for the first time. This is due to additional administrative costs for processing applications from out of state and conducting a thorough evaluation of those applicants. In California, this group of test-takers will see an increase from $1,136 to $1,653 for bar exam and laptop fees. Their moral character determination fee will now be $850.

What Law Grads Can Expect

In addition to the increased fees, the state is taking several steps to reduce the costs of administering the exam to balance its budget. As part of this initiative, several testing sites for the February 2024 bar exam were eliminated: San Diego, Sacramento, and Oakland. The testing locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Ontario were retained. By eliminating these testing sites, the state bar is expected to save $550,000.

The plans for next year's bar exam have yet to be finalized, and changes are still being considered, including conducting a portion of the test remotely. We should know by next January the final plans for the July 2024 exam.

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