Turkeys aren’t the only ones being pardoned this Thanksgiving. California and Oregon law students are escaping the clutches of the bar exam, thanks to the introduction of new alternative programs. These aren’t the first, and likely not the last, instances of states revamping the attorney licensing process. However, California and Oregon’s new alternative pathways are unique from what states like Wisconsin and Utah have already implemented.
California’s New Idea: Prove that You Can Write a Memo. For 6 Months.
California law school graduates might be able to practice law without taking the bar exam. You might be asking yourself how the legal profession can go on without this painful right of passage, but the California State Bar has a proposal for how this could work.
Last week, the State Bar of California’s board of trustees passed a test run of the Portfolio Bar Exam, which is the state’s proposed alternative to the bar. Unlike the multiple-choice questions and essay-writing exercises that attorneys have admitted attorneys to the bar since the 1940s, the Portfolio Bar Exam requires law school graduates to spend four to six months of apprenticeship under a seasoned attorney. Over the course of these 700-1000 hours of “supervised legal practice,” a candidate would accumulate a portfolio showcasing the legal work and experience she gained. The State Bar of California would grade this portfolio, and passing grades would be granted admission to the bar — no bar exam necessary.
While this alternative has not yet been signed off on by the California Supreme Court, the California State Bar’s support is indicative of California’s movement away from the bar exam and toward a more hands-on procedure. Reactions to this proposed new alternative are mixed. 59 California bar organizations wrote the State Bar a letter expressing concerns that the Portfolio Bar Exam would “allow licensure based on a varying and subjective standard that can be easily manipulated.” However, others still contend that conducting actual legal work for a few months is a far more accurate indicator of a law school graduate’s aptitude for the industry than a grueling two-day exam. Further, it’s hard to argue that being paid for months of hands-on legal experience is a worse deal than taking months off of work to study for the bar.
Looking ahead, the Portfolio Bar Exam will be tested through a pilot program of about one hundred law school graduates. Though the most recent state to ditch the bar, there seems to be a growing trend across the country which favors a more experience-based, rather than test-based, approach to attorney certification.
Oregon Thought of it First:
California’s most recent step towards an experience-based, rather than examination-based, attorney licensure program comes just two weeks after the Oregon Supreme court implemented the same thing. Similarly to California’s proposed program, Oregon’s Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination requires law school graduates to spend 675 hours under the tutelage of a seasoned attorney, yielding a portfolio of legal work that bar officials will grade in lieu of a bar exam. Oregon’s new bar alternative will go into effect May 2024, enabling Oregon law students to look forward to months of paid work rather than months of studying without pay.
Wisconsin and Utah: Your $200k Piece of Paper is Enough for Us.
The COVID-19 pandemic inspired Utah to be the first state to enable law school graduates to bypass the bar, but still practice. In April 2020, the Utah Supreme Court approved an “emergency program” wherein recent law graduates who meet a lengthy list of criteria, including conducting 360 hours of legal work under the tutelage of an experienced and licensed attorney, could become full members of the Utah bar without taking the bar exam.
Similarly, Wisconsin also implements diploma privilege: graduation from the University of Wisconsin Law School automatically translates to being licensed to practice law in that state. Diploma privilege, which dates back to 1870 in this state, enables Wisconsin graduates to practice in federal agencies like the IRS, FTC, and SEC. Law students interested in taking this route, rather than the lose-months-of-your-life-to-bar-studying route, must satisfy academic requirements and pass a character and fitness certification.
Having your final tuition payment be your final investment into your legal certification—rather than forking out another chunk of your savings for a two-day exam—is an attractive alternative to many law students.
Going to law school in Utah, Wisconsin, or Oregon could exempt you from the long process of preparing for and taking the bar exam; plus, the certification process in California seems to be not far behind. Though a longtime shared-trauma experience for attorneys across the country, the bar may soon not be a common experience in the legal field.