After the kerfuffle created last summer when the scores of the July test-takers showed a dramatic decrease nationwide, "[s]ome states, including Arizona, Iowa and New Hampshire, are exploring or have adopted other options, questioning the wisdom of relying on a single written test as the gateway to legal practice."
The NYTimes notes that last November, about 80 law school deans "jointly asked, for the first time anyone remembers, for details on how test questions were chosen and scored. The situation was already touchy after remarks made the previous month by a top bar exam official, who defended the [July] results as indisputably correct, and then, in what the deans viewed as verbal dynamite, labeled the test takers as 'less able' than their predecessors."
This is just the latest criticism of the bar exam, as "critics have long questioned not only the expense and time devoted to taking the exam but also whether clients benefit from an admissions standard that is largely based on rote memorization."
Currently, "[a]ll states but one, Wisconsin, require passing the bar exam to become a licensed lawyer, but bar associations in states including Arizona and Iowa have been exploring alternatives. The Iowa State Bar Association proposed an in-state 'diploma privilege,' similar to neighboring Wisconsin’s, that would allow graduates of local law schools to skip the bar exam and begin practicing immediately."
Another big concern is the time and expense it takes law schools to prepare students to take the test. "Eliminating or curtailing the current bar exam would give law schools more leeway to create programs and conduct testing that determines who becomes a lawyer. The schools say the exam’s outsize importance forces them to devote more resources, including bar-specific courses, to prepare graduates for the crucial test rather than focusing on legal principles or hands-on law practice."
New Hampshire's new alternative licensing model seems like a better predictor of lawyering skills. "Its University of New Hampshire School of Law allows second- and third-year students to participate in a kind of apprenticeship where they learn basics like taking depositions. Those accepted to the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program create portfolios of their written work and record their oral performances, which are reviewed by state bar examiners after each semester. Those who pass the review can skip the bar exam and go directly into practice."
It may be time to take a good, hard look at the bar exam. But as noted in the article, New Hampshire's alternative model took 17 years to be fully adopted. The great thing is that we now have other models to work from. If New Hampshire's model is successful, then it may take other states less time to adopt a similar model.