Thursday, April 15, 2021
Logan Cornett (Denver) & Deborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State; Google Scholar), Building a Better Bar: The Twelve Building Blocks of Minimum Competence:
The bar exam tries to distinguish minimally competent lawyers from incompetent ones: it exists to protect the public from the harms of incompetent legal representation. That protection is critical to maintaining the integrity of the profession, but the bar exam achieves that goal only if it effectively assesses minimum competence. Although the bar exam has existed for more than a century, there has never been an agreed-upon, evidence-based definition of minimum competence. Absent such a definition, it is impossible to know whether the bar exam is a valid measure of the minimum competence needed to practice law or an artificial barrier to entry. We designed this study to address these substantial gaps in our knowledge, build on the existing research, and develop an evidence-based definition of minimum competence. We conducted 50 focus groups using a protocol we developed to gather data about the knowledge and skills new lawyers need to practice competently. Of those focus groups, 41 were conducted with new lawyers, while the remaining nine were conducted with those who supervise new lawyers. The data from these focus groups suggest that minimum competence consists of 12 interlocking components — or “building blocks.”
Based on the data, it is also clear that exams should be open book and provide greater time to complete. Multiple choice questions bear little resemblance to the cognitive skills lawyers use and should be avoided; instead, written performance tests do in fact resemble many of the tasks that new lawyers perform and are encouraged. Additionally, practice-based assessments, such as ones based on clinical performance, offer promising avenues for evaluating minimum competence beyond the bar exam. In this report, we also outline 10 recommendations that courts, law schools, bar associations, bar examiners, and other stakeholders should consider in their efforts to move towards better, evidence-based lawyer licensing.