Does Lowering the Puerto Rican Bar Exam Pass Score Allow for Better Access to Justice?

Does Lowering the Puerto Rican Bar Exam Pass Score Allow for Better Access to Justice?

We all know that passing the Bar Exam is a milestone, but more than that, is an achievement and an introduction to a whole new professional world full of unimaginable challenges.  However, given several factors such as the transition to virtual education given the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of social, communal and colloquial interaction that usually attendance at a university allows for, as well as the classroom debate, most exchanges have been limited to a screen-to-screen virtual imagery communication, and ultimately students have been lost and contrived to a limited virtual proximity and presence.  This sudden switch to virtual education has impacted all types of students (from pre-K to university students, including but not limited to, law school students).  Nonetheless, does the fact that the passing grade for the Bar Exam has been lowered in Puerto Rico from 596 to 569 a bad indicator for the quality of their legal practitioners?  Is lowering the passing bar grade a good thing or a bad sign that individuals are not yet equipped to practice law?  Will it allow for more representation to underserved communities and ultimately access to justice or will it have no impact and maintain the status quo?

In Puerto Rico, Deans of all three American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools support the decision taken by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico to lower the passing score.  The Deans thought the change was good, however, they emphasized that the new passing grade would retroactively apply to those who took the Bar Exam in Puerto Rico in March 2022, prospectively.  Nevertheless, many believe that low bar passage rates in Puerto Rico are not a new phenomenon, but rather, pass rates have been trending downward for some time.  Those same Deans (Vivian Neptune, Dean of the University of Puerto Rico, School of Law; Julio Fontanet, Dean of the Interamerican University School of Law; and Fernando Moreno Orama, Dean of the Catholic University, School of Law) all agreed that the issue has been the actual exam all along and the passing percentile has been declining throughout the past years.  

The Deans also agree that the key problem is not the quality of the law school education provided by their faculty.  But rather the consensus is that the Puerto Rican bar exam generally tests memory capacity without specific practical exercises that can accurately measure a candidates’ aptitude to practice law.  

Lowering the passing grade may be one step to improving access to justice since it may allow additional law school graduates, who have diverse social and economic backgrounds, to join the profession.  It allows some graduates to start their careers sooner than having to wait another term to take the bar exam.  It may also avoid graduates from pursuing another career since one cannot become an attorney until passing the bar.  The island also continues to face an economic crisis that compels many attorneys to pursue non-legal careers or move to the mainland where employment opportunities are far more remunerative and accessible.

It should be noted that the grade adjustment was due to a psychometric study performed by Dr. Chad W. Buckendahl of ACS Ventures, LLC (a consultant firm based in Clark County, Nevada).

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