Racial gaps in bar exam pass rates increased in 2021

New data from the American Bar Association highlighting racial disparities in bar exam pass rates could contribute to the ongoing debates over the fairness of the test and whether it should be reformed.

The national first-time pass rate for white Juris Doctor graduates who took the bar exam in 2021 was 85%—24 percentage points higher than the 61% first-time pass rate among black law graduates.

Hispanic law graduates posted a first-time pass rate of 72%; Asian law graduates had a 79% pass rate; and 70% of Native Americans passed on the first try last year.

The first-time pass rate gap between white and black bar takers increased two percentage points between 2020 and 2021. Last year was the first time the ABA provided bar exam results broken down by race and gender — a change attributed to public concern over differing pass rates and a lack of data detailing that trend.

Aaron Taylor, executive director of the non-profit organization AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence, attributed the widened racial gap in bar pass rates to the COVID-19 pandemic’s outsized impact on communities of color. But he said lower bar exam pass rates have long been a barrier to minority lawyers joining the legal profession.

“Hopefully, more jurisdictions will consider the impact of their bar exams on the diversity of their profession,” Taylor said.

A spokeswoman for the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which designs the national components of the bar exam, said researchers need to look beyond the exam itself to fully understand the root cause of racial disparities in pass rates. Examining other metrics including Law School Admission Test scores and law school grade-point averages is a “better way to understand the complex interactions among racial identity, social capital, educational experiences, and performance on the bar exam,” she said.

You can read more about these statistics here.

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