Oregon to drop bar exam requirement for lawyers after data shows racial disparities

The state organization that regulates lawyers recommends no longer requiring law school graduates to pass the bar exam to practice, offering two new routes to join the profession instead.

This idea would distinguish Oregon from the other states of the union, as it would be the first in the country to have three options for becoming a lawyer, legal experts say. People will still be able to take the exam, but can also rely on coursework and practical experience instead, according to the recommendations by a task force of the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners.

Proponents say the changes will lead to better prepared attorneys and expand the pool of eligible lawyers to those who may not have the time or resources to prepare for the bar. “We are walking on the moon here,” said Brian Gallini, dean of Willamette University College of Law in Salem and a member of the task force that made the recommendations.

The group suggested transforming the second and third years of law school into a clinical-based model with a capstone project that would be submitted to the Board of Bar Examiners for approval. The second option is to create a post-graduation model for applicants to work under a licensed attorney for 1,000 to 1,500 hours and submit a portfolio of work samples to the board. Another group suggested that Oregon lower the passing score on the Uniform Bar Exam from 274 to 270; fifteen other states have a passing score of 270.

The chair of the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners, Joanna Perini-Abbott, said the proposed options would protect consumers at least as much as the bar exam. “There is not a free pass under either pathway,” she said. “It’s not ‘take these courses and you get admitted to the bar.’ There is still a strong consumer protection avenue where the Board of Bar Examiners retains that control.”

Some may not be good test-takers, she said. Others may have families to support and may be unable to prepare. The cost of the exam can also pose a financial burden. “I think it takes into account individuals’ life circumstances a little bit better,” she said. “It recognizes that not every law graduate is 25 with a financial cushion and the ability to just study for two straight months for an exam.”

In 2019, one out of four people taking the July bar exam failed, according to the Oregon State Bar, and in some years as many as 42% of test takers have failed. The recommendations went to the Oregon Supreme Court last Friday, the same week the American Bar Association released data showing blunt racial disparities in bar exam results.

The proposal comes one year after the Oregon Supreme Court remove the requirement that law school graduates pass the bar exam after the state’s law schools requested it, citing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state joined Oregon, Louisiana, Utah, Washington, and Washington D.C. in offering diploma privileges. Diploma privileges allow anyone who graduated from law school and planned to take the exam last July to skip the test and declared competent to practice law.

Blaine Clooten, a Pendleton lawyer, said he opposes the proposed changes, calling the bar exam “the great equalizer.” He said the exam ensures a qualified workforce, and said many of his peers in Umatilla County agree. “We want people that are competent, that are going to represent people that need access to justice and the only way to ensure minimum competency is through the bar exam,” he said. Memorizing and being tested on information under stress of a timed exam is a good test of a lawyer, he said. “If you can’t handle the bar exam, you can’t handle a trial,” he said.



Leave a Reply