New York's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, announced last week that the state would adopt the Uniform Bar Exam, a standard licensing test for lawyers. It's the largest state to take this step, which Lippman said could result in a “domino effect.” I hope so, and I hope California will be the next state to fall. The current system, under which each state sets its own requirements and won't recognize out-of-state credentials, is inefficient, burdensome and, frankly, unjustifiable.
Bar exams were rare until the late 19th century. From the late 1880s to the early 1920s, however, the American Bar Assn. waged a successful campaign for states to require a written exam. Traditionally, each state wrote and administered its own test. The purported rationale was to ensure that those admitted to practice law in a given state were sufficiently familiar with its unique laws.
But the truth is that basic principles of law do not vary from state to state. And lawyers can learn the quirky specifics as they go. Forcing students to memorize detailed, state-specific rules, most of which they will never need to know and which they will promptly forget, does not ensure competence.Chemerinsky notes the recent move by New York to adopt the Uniform Bar Examination. The New York Times has further reporting on that story here.
In the past, I have implied that bar exams that are not state-specific may not be ideal. There is a push to do away with bar exams in some states, and some of these arguments rely on bar exams not being specific to each state's law. To the extent that uniform bar exams provide fuel for these arguments, I acknowledge that this is one drawback of adopting uniform bar exams, since I am in favor of maintaining some form of a bar exam (although I would be open to considering a national licensing exam, like the one Chemerinksy hints at near the end of his op-ed).
But beyond the minor concern of the Uniform Bar Exam fueling opposition to bar exams in general, I think that Chemerinsky is correct. A great deal of time that I spent studying for the California bar exam involved learning areas of law that were specific to California. I not only reviewed the law of civil procedure, I also reviewed California civil procedure. I not only studied evidence law, I also studied California evidence law. I did not spend time in law school studying California-specific laws, since I did not know whether I would be staying in California after graduation. But had my plans been more set in stone, I likely would have taken some California-specific classes in order to better prepare my self for the California bar exam.
A Uniform Bar Exam would save students time by allowing them to focus only on an area of law, rather than requiring students to also parse out the differences in California's laws. Moving to the Uniform Bar Exam would also save paper. Approximately 70 pages in my commercial outline book for the bar exam were devoted to California Civil Procedure -- a state-specific subject that had never been tested before (and was not tested the summer I took the bar exam). By switching to the Uniform Bar Exam, law graduates would be able to focus their studies more efficiently and not waste time wading through redundancies and exploring areas that have never been tested. Another possible benefit of switching to the Uniform Bar Exam is that such a switch may cut down on the outrageous amount of time grading the exam takes (note the date of July 31 on this post from the third day of the California Bar Exam, and the date of November 21 on the date of this post when the bar exam results were released).
New York's adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam is noteworthy, and I hope that this development will have a ripple effect that reaches the west coast. Even if the California Bar does not want to adopt the Uniform Bar Exam, I hope that it will at least consider taking California's bar exam in a more uniform direction.