Bar exam pass rate dropped last year for first-time testers

Students sit for the philosophy baccalaureate exam at the French Louis Pasteur Lycee in Strasbourg
REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
  • Four out of five law grads passed test on first try in 2021-ABA
  • Pandemic, changes to the exam complicate pass rate comparisons

(Reuters) - Just under 80% of law graduates who took the bar exam for the first time in 2021 passed the mandatory attorney licensing test, according to new figures released Tuesday by the American Bar Association.

That’s a drop of more than 3% from the aggregate national first-time bar pass rate of nearly 84% for 2020, the data show.

But the ABA found that the percentage of graduates who passed the bar exam within two years of leaving campus - the “ultimate pass rate” - improved slightly last year. That figure ticked up one percentage point from the previous year, to 91% for the class of 2019.

The ABA releases data on first-time and ultimate bar passage rates each spring as a resource for the public and potential law school applicants. The figures aggregate national pass rates and provide data on how graduates of each law school performed on the attorney licensing test.

Utah had the highest statewide first-time pass rate in 2021 at nearly 90%, followed by New York at 86% and Washington at almost 83%. Puerto Rico posted the lowest first-time pass rate at nearly 34%. West Virginia was next with a 60% first-time pass rate, followed by Vermont at 62%.

Year-over-year pass rate comparisons are complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted many jurisdictions to move the bar exam online or modify its format in the summer of 2020 and throughout 2021. A handful of jurisdictions introduced temporary diploma privilege programs that enabled recent law graduates to become licensed without sitting for and passing the bar exam.

The ABA data show that just 722 law graduates were admitted to practice through diploma privileges in 2021, which represented just 2% of first-time bar takers last year. By contrast, 1,501 law graduates were admitted through diploma privilege in 2020, according to the ABA.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at