Let’s not kid ourselves: no lawyer likes the bar exam, and with good reason. After reading and writing for three years of law school, you finally receive your degree. Adulation showers down upon you. But there is still one more hurdle. So for a month or so, you grind through the bar review course; you memorize mountains of seemingly meaningless information; and for two days you, politely speaking, return it.
Then you wait and worry, until a few months later when, in Maryland, most learn that they have passed. At long last, you are a licensed attorney and you never want to think about the bar examination again.
Today, some forward-thinking lawyers are asking questions about the exam. Has it become just another expensive barrier to entry for the profession, particularly now, when new lawyers are emerging from law school with mind-boggling amounts of debt?
Does it even test or teach anything relevant to the skill set needed to be a useful attorney-citizen?
And how about the unproductive parochialism generated by each State having its own exam?
As it becomes increasingly difficult to educate and employ productive new lawyers, the bar examination is getting a hard look.
Nationally, the American Bar Association (don’t grind your teeth, the ABA does some good things – besides, grinding is bad for your teeth) is studying legal education as a whole and is peripherally eyeing bar exams. The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education has issued a draft report that recommends increasing the “testing of skills” and decreasing the number of “doctrinal subjects” in bar examinations. In ABA-speak, that translates into making the test more practical and less academic. Debate and a vote will be had at the upcoming mid-year meeting in Chicago.
At the state level, the New York State Bar Association is considering scheduling the bar examination between the second and third years of law school. One of the benefits would be earlier entry into the job market, leading to less student debt. In Arizona, the state Supreme Court has issued a rule permitting eligible law students to take the bar exam between semesters during the third year of law school. The hope is law schools will then develop final semester curriculum offering more practical experience.
More radical changes have been adopted in New Hampshire, where the state’s only law school has launched the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program. Graduates of the program, which includes two years of supervised clinical experience, are excused from taking the state’s bar examination altogether (although they still take the multi-state test).
More locally, the Maryland bar examination is administered by the State Board of Law Examiners under the direction of the Court of Appeals. As most of us recall, the exam involves local and national components and follows the traditional model of a two day exam given twice a year. The Maryland Professionalism Center is convening a Task Force on Admission to the Bar which, presumably, will take a look at our exam. Given the diminished employment opportunities and increased costs confronting Maryland’s law graduates, any changes to the exam that might better train lawyers and decrease their debt would be a welcome relief.
We will always need some type of licensing exam, and it will never be one of our favorite parts of becoming a lawyer. But it should add to our legal education and improve the competency of the Bar. The legal profession and the skills needed to succeed in it have undergone dramatic transformations in recent years. The Maryland bar examination deserves a fresh look.