The racial gap in bar exam pass rates got worse in 2021

The year "2021" is seen on the tassel of Mark Dodge, 27, a graduate from The George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
The year "2021" is seen on the tassel of Mark Dodge, 27, a graduate from The George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • ABA data show the disparity in first-time pass rates between white and Black law grads grew to 24 percentage points in 2021
  • That's among the reasons to rethink how attorneys are licensed, reformers say

May 2 (Reuters) - New data from the American Bar Association highlighting racial disparities in bar exam pass rates could add fuel to ongoing debates over the fairness of the attorney licensing test and whether it should be reformed.

The national first-time pass rate for white J.D. 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, according to ABA figures released Monday.

Hispanic law grads posted a first-time pass rate of 72%; Asian law grads had a 79% pass rate; and 70% of Native Americans passed on the first try last year. The first-time pass rate for all bar exam takers was 80%, a three-percentage point decline from 2020.

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

Aaron Taylor, executive director of the non-profit 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.

The pass rate gap is smaller for the so called “ultimate bar pass rate,” which gauges the percentage of law graduates who passed the test within two years of leaving campus. White law students who graduated in 2019 had an ultimate bar pass rate of 94% while Black law grads had an ultimate pass rate of 81%—a 13 percentage-point difference.

Read more:

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

Does the bar exam cost too much? These law profs think so

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