A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

The bar exam is back in the news. Later this month the ABA House of Delegates will consider a proposal to raise the bar-passage standard. The proposal would require that 75% of an accredited law school’s graduates pass a bar exam within two years of graduation.

In most states, bar exam means the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Uniform Bar Exam. The UBE has been adopted by 35 jurisdictions and is under consideration in others. It carries the endorsement of many ABA-related entities. They include the Conference of Chief Justices, the Law Student and Law Practice Divisions, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, and the House of Delegates.

As a reminder of the features of the UBE, and an update on the pace of its adoption, I have accepted Mary Lynch’s gracious invitation to reblog my recent post “Will the Uniform Bar Exam Come to Michigan?” from the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School blog. (Spoiler alert: no time soon.)

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Professor Merritt’s Blog post on attorney discipline and bar exam WORTH A READ!

Our blog has often posted about many issues related to licensing lawyers, experiential requirements for admission, the monopolizing power of the NCBE and the pros and cons of the UBE.  Thus, I recommend to our readers an excellent post by our blogger friend Professor Deborah Merritt over at Law School Cafe on bar exam scores and lawyer discipline. Professor Merritt analyzes an article by Pepperdine Professors Robert Anderson and Professor Derek Mueller entitled The High Cost of Lowering the Bar Exam.   Professors Anderson and Mueller opine that “lowering the bar examination passing score will likely increase the amount of malpractice, misconduct, and discipline among California lawyers.” Merritt objects to any causal inference noting,

Two key facts, however, weigh strongly against drawing that type of causal inference. First, as Anderson and Muller point out, “[t]here is virtually no discipline in the first 10 years of practice.” If the bar exam measured qualities related to attorney discipline, one would expect to see disciplinary cases emerge during those 10 years. Wouldn’t attorneys with marginal competency (as measured by the current bar exam) reveal their deficiencies during their early practice years?

Second, attorney discipline almost never rests on lack of knowledge about legal doctrine, poor reasoning skills, or bad writing–the skills currently measured by the bar exam. Levin and her colleagues reported that attorneys most often received discipline for failing to communicate with clients (20.0%), lack of diligence (17.93%), and failure to safeguard client property (11.26%). Only 4.14% of disciplinary sanctions related to “competence”–and even some of those cases may have reflected incompetence in areas that are not tested by the bar exam.

My favorite comment by Professor Merritt provides another example from which we should not infer causality (however tempting it might be to some of us who have been hurt by patriarchy),

We should not exclude individuals from a profession based on qualities that merely correlate with misconduct.

To underscore that point, consider this: The strongest predictor of attorney discipline is the y chromosome. Male attorneys are much more likely than female ones to be disciplined. If we want to use correlations to reduce instances of attorney discipline, it would be much more efficient to ban men from the profession, subject them to special character exams, or require them to achieve a higher bar exam score than women. Those actions, of course, would raise special issues of gender discrimination–but they illustrate the drawbacks of predicting malfeasance based on correlations.

These questions and assumed correlations are important ones. Many defend the decreasing bar passage statistics as appropriate market correction to prevent “undesirables” from entry into the profession — a consumer protection argument. However, as Professor Merritt points out, there is so much more to unpack here. For example, most misconduct challenges occur against solo practitioners or small firms. This raises overlapping socio-economic questions: which lawyers could be perceived as easiest to challenge, which lawyers have the best legal defense teams, and which kind of clients have the most reason to complain.

After teaching for over 28 years and observing which graduates pass the bar on the first try and which do not , I am skeptical of the Anderson-Mueller argument. I would love to see the NCBE and other scholars engage in a socio-economic analysis of bar passage and of disciplinary misconduct.

Congratulations UNM and Editors of the proposed new Best Practices Book!

This weekend, the University of New Mexico hosted a workshop BEST PRACTICES IN LEGAL EDUCATION: The Walls Are Coming Down” in which draft chapters of a new “Best Practices” book were reviewed and discussed.  The proposal to create a second book focused on best practices in legal education is the brainchild of Professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, ably assisted by Professors Deborah Maranville, , Carolyn Kaas and Lisa Bliss. The symposium workshop brought together law professors from throughout the country interested in how legal education and the world of law schools has changed since the publication of the 2007 book Best Practices in Legal Education. Facilitated by Professors Beryl Blaustone and Alex Scherr, the conference explored how many law professors fluidly move from former silos of clinical, legal writing, lawyering, librarian, doctrinal, theory, or skills concentrations to pioneer a new kind of curriculum, better prepare students for the profession, explore the limits and usefulness of technology, and deepen the understanding and learning of law students through self-improving assessment processes.

Fully cognizant of the pressures on legal educators, the fact that not all in legal education welcome the need to change, and the moral imperative to address the concerns of debt-ridden unemployed law students, the authors, editors, advisory board members and readers reviewed challenges, cross-cutting themes and areas of promise. They engaged in innovative thinking about how to move legal education forward for the good of the profession, society and the students who desire to be lawyers of tomorrow. The keynote speaker for the Friday night dinner and author of the first book, Professor Roy Stuckey, directed the participants’ attention to what legal education should look like in 2027. At the same time, he reminded us that those seeking to improve legal education today stand on the shoulders of folks such as the honorable Rosalie Wahl and former ABA president Bob MacCrate who paved the way for the changes we have seen in the last 40 years. He recalled their joint mission to prepare “agents for justice in our communities.”

Every law graduate needs to understand fully that civic professional role of the lawyer. And every admittee to the bar has a sworn duty to improve our system of and access to justice. Returning to those principles can help prioritize our cost-cutting and can position us to move forward in the best interests of our students, our institutions and the society our profession is pledged to serve.

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