ABA Journal, Examining the Bar: Should Law Grads Need to Pass the Bar to Practice? Some Say There Is a Better Way:
Brian Gallini, dean of Willamette University College of Law, supports keeping the bar exam—as well as adding two alternative paths to attorney licensure. But he admits it’s not a popular position among his school’s alumni.
It’s not because they loved studying nonstop for two months to take an exam filled with subject matter they would forget about the moment their pencils hit the table and never use in their professional careers.
It’s certainly not because the bar exam prepared them for practicing law. Gallini says most alumni tell him when they first started practicing law, they didn’t know how to do things and often received instructions from paralegals.
It’s not because the test is equitable. Based on statistics, the first-time pass rate for white candidates in 2021 was 85%, compared with numbers below 79% for test-takers of color, according to ABA data.
It’s not even that the score means much as far as setting baseline qualifications for bar admission. Gallini points out the Uniform Bar Exam and its portable score, emphasizing that since each jurisdiction sets its own cut score, a candidate can fail in one place but pass in another.
Once he cuts through those various arguments, he estimates that it takes him about 15 minutes to persuade someone of the need to reform the bar examination process.
“I have found this conversation does not work well in a group; it has to be one-on-one. It’s letting the person vent and articulate their concerns. I think people are changing their minds organically,” adds Gallini, who served on the Oregon Supreme Court’s Alternatives to the Bar Exam Task Force. The group came about after the state granted emergency diploma privilege—thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic—to 2020 graduates of Oregon law schools slated to take the bar exam that July.
At a January 2022 public meeting, the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously approved in concept two new attorney licensure plans, and the state is now working on implementation. One plan involves obtaining a license after completing a law school experiential learning program focused on skills including legal research, issue spotting and argument development. The other plan supports licensure after completing between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of supervised practice after graduation. There would still be a bar exam option.
California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Utah and Washington also have groups studying attorney licensure. Like Oregon, most are considering admissions alternatives in addition to the bar exam.
Lawyers involved with these working groups say two primary factors led to the profession being more open to admissions alternatives: that there’s scant if any data to show a connection between cut scores and competence to practice law; and that the pandemic altered the country’s notions about how things should be done.
“I think it just woke people up. It’s easy to say, ‘We’ve been through this, you can learn this stuff,’ to then have your vision shifted to think, ‘Really, did I learn anything from taking the bar exam that mattered?’” says Carol Chomsky, a University of Minnesota Law School professor.
She’s one of 11 law professors who wrote an often-cited March 2020 white paper, “The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action.” ...
A benefit of Utah’s July 2020 emergency diploma privilege: Brigham Young University J. Ruben Clark Law School went from No. 29 last year to No. 23 in this year’s U.S. News & World Report law school rankings; and the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law is now at No. 37, compared with No. 43 last year. The most recent rankings were based on data from 2020 graduates, including first-time test-taker pass rates and employment outcomes. The Utah schools saw increases in both categories.
So did Oregon’s Willamette Law, and the school went from the Nos. 147-193 range last year to No. 129 in the rankings this year.