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Monday, January 13, 2014

Iowa State Bar Association Considers Doing Away With Bar Exam

The Des Moines Register reports:
Graduates of Iowa’s two law schools could begin practicing law in the state soon after graduation rather than waiting until they pass the bar exam, under a proposal before the Iowa Supreme Court. 
The proposal would apply only to law school graduates who stay in Iowa to work. Law school graduates would still have to pass an ethics exam and screening and background checks, according to the proposal. It also would require students to take an Iowa-specific law and procedure course.
Proponents of eliminating the bar exam argue that graduates are unable to practice immediately after graduation and accrue a great deal of debt before bar results are released:

Backers of the proposal from an Iowa State Bar Association committee say the change could lessen the massive debt that University of Iowa and Drake University law school graduates face. A 4½-half-month gap exists between graduation and when exam-takers learn their test results. Many graduates take out loans to cover that period, which can cost about $29,000, according to the proposal.

. . .

Less debt means more new lawyers could spread to Iowa’s smaller communities, where beginning salaries are lower but new blood is needed because of a population of aging and retiring lawyers, [Drake Law School Dean, Allan] Vestal said.
And proponents also note that current bar passage rates are high, indicating that the bar exam may not make much of a difference to the makeup of Iowa's law community.

While this proposal is certainly interesting, there are some side effects that the proponents' arguments (as expressed in this article) do not seem to be taking into account.

First, the proponents of the exam note that Iowa's current bar exam is not Iowa-specific, (apparently consisting of only the Multistate Bar Examination, or MBE). This means that students tend to take courses that prepare them for an exam that is not entirely relevant to the law they will end up practicing. I think that this highlights a problem with the current setup of the Iowa bar exam. But I also think that taking courses in preparation for the MBE is a useful approach -- since this will introduce students to practical areas of law, which, while not always exactly on-point with Iowa law, will at least introduce important concepts and issues that a non-systematic study of the law may not fully reveal.

Second, I think that the proponents' claim that Iowa's high bar-passage rate indicates that the exam is unnecessary is flawed. Students may pass the bar at a high rate, but they likely do so because they take classes that prepare them for the exam, or at least take courses after graduation that refresh them on areas of the law with which they may be unfamiliar. Without the prospect of a bar exam after graduation, students may be less likely to engage in a broader survey of the law while in law school. And in the very least, not reviewing core legal concepts immediately after graduation makes it more likely that graduates will fail to recall these concepts while they are practicing attorneys.

Third, I am not sure that it is correct to say that students will be accruing debt over the entire four and a half months after graduation. True, there are some students (like me) who will likely take on some debt in order to pay for bar preparation courses (and to have housing and food while studying for the bar). But these students would probably not be forced into take on more debt during the entire period before bar exams are released. After taking the bar exam, graduates could begin working at a firm and have other attorneys sign off on their work. This is the setup that large law firms use for summer associates. And for students looking to fill the shoes of soon-to-retire, small town lawyers, this time could be an excellent opportunity for those graduates to be mentored by the attorneys whose firms the graduates hope to one day run.

The Register concludes by noting that Iowa's Supreme Court will consider this proposal during the summer. I hope that the Court takes note of all of the implications that this change could entail.

(H/T: Howard Bashman at "How Appealing")

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