Most states require people who want to practice law there to pass the “bar exam.” Spread across two or three days, this grueling standardized test covers their knowledge of the law in certain key areas. The bar exam has spurred widespread criticism in recent years. Some studies have suggested that it disfavors non-white test takers, while some lawyers believe that it does not accurately test skills used in practice. For example, attorneys can conduct research in many sources to help them advise and represent their clients. Test takers go through the bar exam closed-book, which places a premium on memorization skills.
States offer the bar exam twice each year. Most law school graduates take the exam in late July after a summer of strenuous preparation. If they fail, they may take it again in the following February. Unfortunately, a significant chunk of test takers fail in some states. In July 2023, for example, 16 states saw one-third or more of test takers fail. These included New York, Florida, and California, the last of which produced only a 52 percent pass rate.
Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed to provide an alternative for the bar exam. It will allow the Oregon State Bar to license law school graduates based on an evaluation of their legal work. This new Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination will involve a review of 675 hours of legal work that a law school graduate has performed under attorney supervision. (The 675-hour requirement aims to mirror the amount of time that test takers study for the bar exam.)
The dean of the Willamette University College of Law, Brian Gallini, spearheaded the initiative. He has noted that the evaluation better measures skills that lawyers use in their practice. In addition, offering an alternative to the bar exam could encourage law schools to focus less on preparing students to take the test and more on building the skills that they will need to help their clients. Opponents of the alternative method have claimed that this lowers the standard for practicing law by creating a less rigorous path to a license.
However, some aspiring Oregon attorneys still may want to take the bar exam. Using the alternative path to licensure works only in Oregon, so they cannot get licensed in other states unless they pass the exam. This limits their career opportunities, at least until other states adopt similar alternatives.
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