The Dreaded California Bar Exam

Today, 5,260 people begin taking the state licensing exam. More than half will fail. And keep failing. Just ask the mayor of Los Angeles.

Former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Angela Alioto won't even say how many times she failed the California bar examination before she finally was licensed to practice law. "Consider it to be several," said the antidiscrimination lawyer and daughter of the late San Francisco mayor and famed antitrust lawyer, Joseph Alioto. "And understand," she quickly added, "that for the last two years in a row I have been nominated as a national trial lawyer of the year."

Add two former governors, an eminent legal scholar and a former state Supreme Court justice to the ranks of those, like Alioto, who learned the hard way that obtaining a license to practice law in California is hard. In fact, it's harder than in almost every other state. Of the 5,260 people expected to take the state's bar examination beginning today, more than half are likely to fail, rates from previous years indicate. Some law school graduates, like Alioto, flunk the bar multiple times before finally passing and becoming lawyers. Others give up.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who graduated from an unaccredited law school, finally called it quits after taking the bar exam four times. His office failed to respond to questions, and Villaraigosa, reached as he entered a downtown restaurant, was at a loss to explain why he had been unable to muster a passing score. "All I can tell you is that I failed four times," the mayor said.

Failing the bar can be a crushing and humiliating experience, particularly when the applicant has spent months studying or is unaccustomed to failure.

Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School and a former Harvard Law School professor, is considered such a legal superstar that news of her flunking the California bar last year made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Sullivan remains a full law professor at Stanford and is associated with a private law firm. Although Sullivan is licensed to practice law in New York and Massachusetts, the California Supreme Court last month removed her from litigation over a $500-million licensing dispute because she was not a member of the state bar.

The constitutional scholar, who has argued several times before the U.S. Supreme Court, wasn't eager to talk about the setback, declining to say how much she studied for the bar or how close she came to passing. "That is all past," Sullivan said.

Details here from the Los Angeles Times.