Thousands of law school students, hoping to become licensed attorneys in California, received an unexpected surprise while cramming for this week’s state bar exam – they got the list of test topics in advance.
The California State Bar says it was part of an innocent mistake, however, one of the 9,000 students who happened to benefit from the mishap is the son of State Bar Executive Director Leah Wilson.
“The Executive Director has been walled off from all decisions regarding the July 2019 bar exam and was not part of the decision-making process regarding release of the subject matter topics,” according to a statement posted on the State Bar website.
The Investigative Unit requested comment from Wilson, but was told she was unavailable.
California State Bar Exam Among Hardest In Nation
California's bar exam has historically boasted one of the lowest passing rates in the country -- more than half of test takers consistently fail.
The State Bar says it inadvertently emailed the list of topics to deans at 16 California law schools, who were supposed to help with the grading process. The email, which noted which 7 of the possible 13 topics were to be included on the exam, was supposed to be sent to those deans after the exam, yet was mistakenly released five days prior to the test.
“We have no evidence the information was shared with students,” said Donna Hershkowitz, Chief of Programs for the State Bar, who released a statement on the agency’s website. “However, out of an abundance of caution and fairness, and in an attempt to level the playing field should any applicants have had access to the information contained in the memo, on Saturday evening, we emailed the same information, verbatim, to all those preparing to take the examination."
550 Students Bail After Learning Exam Topics
Two days after mistakenly releasing the test topics to the select group of deans, the State Bar sent the same list to the roughly 9,000 people signed up to take the exam.
Historically, the California bar exam can cover any of 13 possible testing categories, however, the unusual release of information dramatically narrowed the scope to just seven topics. Upon learning which categories were to be covered, about 550 students decided to bail on the exam and received full refunds, according to the State Bar. More than 200 others remained registered for the exam, but failed to show up.
State Bar’s Troubled History
While the California State Bar licenses attorneys, the public agency is also responsible for protecting the public against dishonest lawyers. The State Bar was created in 1927 to serve as a watchdog by investigating claims of attorney misconduct.
A past state audit and previous reporting by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, however, have raised serious questions about mismanagement and lack of transparency within the agency. In 2015, the California State Auditor's Office determined "the State Bar allowed some attorneys whom it otherwise might have disciplined more severely – or even disbarred – to continue practicing law, at significant risk to the public."
Early Release of Exam Topics Result of “Human Error”
The latest blunder, involving the early release of the exam topics, stemmed from “human error,“ according to the State Bar, and will now be the subject of an “independent review.”
“On behalf of the State Bar, we do sincerely apologize for this error,” Board Chair Jason Lee said in a statement. “Having taken the test myself 20 years ago, I understand the stress of preparing. We know this only adds to the level of the stress.”