November 29, 2021

Lawyers Complain the Pandemic Made the Bar Exam Too Hard, Should CPAs Complain Too?

A sad man

Stumbled across an interesting article yesterday that I thought was worth sharing with you if for no other reason than it’s been a while since we’ve instigated a pissing contest with lawyers over whose professional licensing exam is harder. The article suggests the law profession should just get rid of the bar exam completely due to poor performance in recent years because the stress and anxiety of the pandemic made it too hard to study, something to which I’m sure even the most overachieving among you can relate.

While worldwide mental health issues brought on by a global pandemic might be new, proposals to ditch the bar exam are not. A March 2021 Wall Street Journal op-ed directly attacked the same barrier to entry that some have complained keeps diverse candidates from the accounting profession.

Congress may soon strengthen the antitrust enforcement powers of the Biden administration’s Justice Department. The department should use those powers to eliminate the American Bar Association’s monopoly in determining what constitutes an acceptable legal education and state licensing requirements, which restrict the supply of lawyers.

Here’s Above the Law’s Joe Patrice with a hot take on that issue, should you be interested.

Our side of the professional services pool has no shortage of scary headlines suggesting your credential is under attack by misguided small-L libertarians who think professional licensing is dumb, so the discussion happening on the law side isn’t all that different from the one happening in accounting. The AICPA is watching this legislative threat closely, and rest assured they will do everything in their power to ensure those pesky libertarians don’t ruin their monopoly on CPA licensure destroy the value of your hard-earned CPA credential.

Anyway, let’s get back to the subject at hand. This is from “Bar scores, always low, drop even more due to pandemic. Does test still make sense?” via WVNews:

After spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a law degree, the reality is that a surprising number of prospective attorneys won’t make the grade when it counts most: Passing the bar exam.

According to statistics provided by the West Virginia Supreme Court, the total pass rate for the July bar exam in West Virginia ranged from a low of 57.5% in the middle of the pandemic this July, to a high of 76.8% in July 2020. During the February exam — which often is taken by out-of-state residents or those who failed the first time around — the total pass rate ranged from 45.9% in February 2019 to 72.3% in February 2011 [did they mean 2021? We assume so]. The WVU pass rate for July’s exam ranged from 58.8% in 2021 to 74.2% in 2013, while the February WVU pass rate ranged from 25% in 2020 to 60% in 2018.

The aggregate national bar pass rates are in the same range: 60,784 people took a U.S. bar exam in 2020, and the overall pass rate was 61%; the February rate was 41% for 19,409 participants, while July of 2020’s was 71% for 41,375 participants.

This has caused calls from some to eliminate the bar exam, notes Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Office Managing Member-Bridgeport Shawn A. Morgan. Bar exam detractors have pointed to the pandemic with 18 months of remote coursework and especially low bar passage rates as a result.

“The opponents of the exam favor allowing new lawyers a period of apprenticeship instead of a test for licensure. California, for example, allows this option,” Morgan said.

They also got a hilarious quote from a lawyer married to another lawyer who roasted the morons who can’t pass a simple test:

“My wife and I worked our butts off and passed — we earned it. The people I know who failed the test, I believe they deserved to fail it. They weren’t prepared, they weren’t bright enough, they couldn’t grasp the concepts. There are a multitude of reasons why these people fail, but its usually because they didn’t put in the work necessary to pass. And as [longtime Charleston attorney Tony O’Dell] said, being a lawyer is hard work and you have to learn that from the beginning. Put in the work or you won’t make it.”

Dyer added that “we only want individuals in the field who can pass that exam. Just like a doctor with boards or an accountant with the CPA exam, it’s important to have a standardized gatekeeper test to make sure only the brightest are getting in because they will be handling such serious and important matters. I don’t think the low passage rate affects the system. The test protects our legal system,” Dyer said.

Is he … suggesting there is no such thing as a dumb lawyer? Not gonna touch that one.

Anyway, this got me wondering how future CPAs have performed during these unprecedented times (are we still using that phrase?). The last time we checked in on CPA exam scores, 2021 CPA exam pass rates were up from the year prior, with the year prior being up from the year before that. So already we know CPAs are doing better than lawyers (suck it, Dyer).

Take a look at 2020 CPA exam pass rates:

2020 Pass Rates

And 2021 CPA exam pass rates as they stand today:

2021 CPA Exam Pass Rates

Pass rates via the AICPA.

Q2 exam performance brought the cumulative pass rate down a bit for each section but we’ll just chalk that up to April 15 or something. The main thing is CPA exam pass rates have stayed pretty consistent throughout the most stressful two years that most of us will ever endure, which is saying quite a bit about future number-crunchers and their ability to get the job done even under tremendous pressure. A tenacity upon which the entire foundation of the Big 4 meat grinder is precariously built, no doubt.

So what’s our takeaway? You guys are killing it. And since we’re all going through the same stress thanks to the same annoying virus, the lawyers might have to come up with a better culprit if they’re trying to ditch their licensing exam because of it. Might I suggest global warming? That one’s pretty annoying.

Further reading:

Bar exam scores keep rolling in, nearly all lower than last year [Reuters]
Bar Exam Scores Dip… Time For Everyone To Freak Out! [Above the Law]
Bar scores, always low, drop even more due to pandemic. Does test still make sense? [WVNews]

Photo by Daniel Reche from Pexels

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