In May, New York became the 16th state—and by far the most prominent—to adopt the Uniform Bar Exam, the standardized licensing test for lawyers created and promoted by the National Conference of Bar Examiners..
With such an influential state on board, the UBE is now all the rage. New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proclaimed in his announcement of the Court’s decision that it “will reverberate among the other states,” ultimately leading to adoption of the UBE throughout the country. The president of the Florida Bar responded to the decision by predicting that the northeastern states will soon follow New York’s lead and also acknowledging that Florida will give accelerated consideration to the UBE. And UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky argued in an L.A. Times op-ed that California should join New York in adopting the UBE.
Before other states react to the reverberations by crowning the UBE as the predominant or sole bar exam in the nation, the entire uniform exam initiative merits closer scrutiny. To be sure, adoption of the UBE throughout the country would make law licenses much more portable for beginning lawyers recently out of law school. That is a worthy goal, but the UBE is a dubious and potentially damaging means for achieving the desirable end of greater interstate license portability, especially because there is a different and more benign way to achieve that end.
A comprehensive consideration of the UBE suggests to me five reasons why additional states should step back from the precipice and be very cautious about joining the UBE bandwagon.
- The UBE perpetuates a flawed bar exam and is fundamentally inconsistent with recent trends in legal education and the legal profession
- The UBE would represent a regressive change to the current bar exam in several state
- The advantage of having the National Conference set a singular scoring methodology for all bar exams is overstated
- National implementation of the UBE would decrease the chance of meaningful bar exam reform by taking power away from states and giving it to the National Conference
- There is another means for achieving license portability that has far fewer drawbacks than the UBE
The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) is administered as roughly half of the bar exam in 49 states and is a very reliable test from a psychometric perspective. Why not allow applicants who achieve a passing score on the MBE on any jurisdiction’s bar exam to apply for admission to any other state without the necessity of taking the bar exam again? Minnesota, North Dakota, and the District of Columbia already permit this, and other states need only follow their example.
A state adopting this approach in lieu of the UBE would be giving full faith and credit to whatever the written portion of the exam is in the original jurisdiction instead of forcing applicants to take its written portion. Since most states scale the scores from their written tests to the MBE, the policy is psychometrically sound. In fact, in many cases, the written tests of the two states at issue would be very similar, and the only variable would be awareness of local law, which could be covered through a CLE program.
Instead of putting its energies into national adoption of the UBE, which would decrease the quality of the bar exam in many states and drastically reduce state autonomy and flexibility, the National Conference could simply push for more states to adopt the policy already maintained by Minnesota, North Dakota, and D.C. We already have a uniform bar exam, and the National Conference already has enough power.
(Some of my article expands on the astute observations made by Professor Dennis Honabach in a piece he wrote in the ABA journal Professional Lawyer last year. ABA members can retrieve full text here, or on Westlaw, it’s at 22 No. 2 Prof. Law. 43.)