Oregon and California Petitioning for Bar Examination Alternatives

By Amelia Trello, Features Editor

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Pennsylvania bar examination results for the July exam are released in mid-October.[1] Until the release date, law school graduates around the state anxiously wait to see if the last three years of schooling and subsequent three months of studying paid off. The Pennsylvania bar is a two-day examination that costs $650 to take.[2] If applicants wish to take the exam on a computer it costs an extra fee of around $100 to $150.[3] To be eligible to take the bar, an applicant must have graduated from an accredited law school, such as the Thomas R. Kline School of Law of Duquesne University.[4] The total cost of attendance for Duquesne Kline School of Law is estimated to be $77,818 per year.[5] After graduating from law school, the applicant typically spends the summer months studying vigorously via a bar prep course such as Themis or Barbri. Themis bar prep can cost up to $3,095 and Barbri bar prep can cost up to $4,199.[6] After all this time, work, and money the applicant may or may not pass the bar to become a practicing attorney. However, some states have recognized the difficulty the bar presents and are working towards an alternative solution.

On August 4, 2023, The Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners unanimously voted to send a proposal outlining bypassing the state bar to the Oregon Supreme Court.[7] The Oregon Supreme Court is now up to vote on a proposal allowing law school graduates to bypass the bar and become licensed attorneys.[8] If successful, Oregon will become the first state to allow law school graduates to bypass the bar on a large scale.[9]

COVID-19 disrupted the bar examination throughout the country and due to its effects, the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners has been developing the bypassing method since 2020.[10] In fact, “Oregon was one of the few states that adopted some form of so-called diploma privilege in the early months of the pandemic, allowing law graduates to become licensed without taking the bar exam.”[11] However, in a post-pandemic world, the state has returned to requiring bar passage to be licensed.[12]

The Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners proposed a program called the Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination.[13] The program requires that law school graduates complete 675 hours of supervised legal work.[14] The number of hours was specifically chosen to match the number of hours that most people take to study for the bar.[15] In addition to the hour requirement, graduated students must also “submit at least eight examples of legal writing; take the lead in at least two initial client interviews or client counseling sessions; and head up two negotiations, among other requirements.”[16] The applicants will then submit their portfolios to the Oregon bar examiners to be scored.[17] Applicants with qualifying scores will ultimately be sworn into the Oregon bar.[18] Oregon is awaiting the final decision from the Oregon Supreme Court on the adoption of the program.[19]

Oregon is not the only state to attempt to implement a state bar bypassing system. California is also considering a new pathway into the legal field.[20] California, like Oregon, allowed law school graduates to practice law under supervision while either skipping or delaying the bar exam during the COVID-19 pandemic.[21] Now California wishes to make the bypass system permanent.[22]

On September 21, 2023, the State Bar’s Board of Trustees “unanimously voted to gather public comments on a proposed new program in which law graduates would receive provisional licenses and work under the supervision of an experienced attorney for four to six months while being paid.”[23] The program is called the Portfolio Bar Exam, and the public will have just 30 days to comment on the proposal.[24] If successful, California would become the largest state to adopt an alternative bar licensing program.[25]

Similarly to Oregon’s proposition, California law school graduates would also be required to complete a portfolio to be graded by the state bar examiners.[26] Graduates earning a passing grade would join those who passed the state bar to become fully licensed within the state.[27]

The program could create many benefits and eliminate hurdles disproportionately affecting minority and underprivileged graduates.[28] According to the proposal, “Candidates who choose this licensing path will avoid the heavy expense of preparing for the traditional bar exam—a burden that falls disproportionately on historically disadvantaged groups, including first-generation graduates, women, and candidates of color.”[29] Current research reflects that Black and Hispanic bar examination takers have lower passage rates compared to their White counterparts in California.[30] The creators of the program also argue that the program could benefit law graduates who wish to pursue a career in public interest, public defender programs and rural areas.[31]

Current 3L Anne Hoover agrees that states should start implementing alternative ways to become a licensed attorney. “Every attorney I have ever talked to says that studying for the bar has nothing to do with practicing law. That is pretty concerning to me,” Hoover stated.[32] Hoover also voiced her concerns regarding the costs of the bar. “The general consensus within the community is that the bar is just not a good way to prepare to be a lawyer and yet we just ignore that fact and force people to spend thousands of dollars and lose even more in lost wages studying for it,” she said. Overall, Hoover liked both Oregon and California’s general proposals to implement a bar bypass system and thought it would be good for the future of law. “If these alternative bar bypassing systems were an option in Pennsylvania, I would definitely take it into serious consideration. I would guarantee that my fellow law students would too.”

Currently, Pennsylvania[33] requires law students to pass the bar to be a licensed attorney.[34] However, if California or Oregon’s petitions are approved, it may make waves into other states for bar examination alternatives.

[1] Information on Bar Exam Results, PENNSYLVANIA BOARD OF LAW EXAMINERS (Aug. 31, 2023) https://www.pabarexam.org/bar_exam_information/results/resultsinfo.htm (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[2] Pennsylvania Bar Exam Information, BAR PREP HERO https://barprephero.com/pennsylvania/ (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[3] How Much Does Bar Exam Registration Cost?, ACCESS LEX INSTITUTE (Oct. 19, 2022) https://www.accesslex.org/news-tools-and-resources/how-much-does-bar-exam-registration-cost#:~:text=Further%2C%20all%20but%20six%20jurisdictions,September%202022%20are%20available%20here. (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[4] Steps to Become a Lawyer/Attorney in Pennsylvania, WILEY UNIVERSITY SERVICES https://www.lawyeredu.org/pennsylvania/#:~:text=The%20Pennsylvania%20Board%20of%20Law%20Examiners%20requires%20that%20you%20receive,Canada%2C%20or%20any%20U.S.%20territories. (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[5] Tuition and Cost of Attendance, DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY https://www.duq.edu/academics/colleges-and-schools/law/admissions/financial-aid-and-scholarships/tuition.php (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[6] All-Inclusive Pricing, THEMIS BAR REVIEW https://www.themisbar.com/pricing?gclid=Cj0KCQjwvL-oBhCxARIsAHkOiu1pUA_c6Lw-pbrdd1gdkQrIJOij8BaKu0VhhS_AbH0CjdYWxis8e_oaAvr6EALw_wcB  (last visited Sept. 24, 2023); BARBRI Bar Review, BARBRI https://www.barbri.com/bar-review-course/bar-review-course-details/ (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[7] Oregon’s Supreme Court to Vote on Bar Exam Alternative, MARINO LEGAL ACADEMY (Sept. 16, 2023) https://marinobarreview.com/2023/09/16/oregons-supreme-court-to-vote-on-bar-exam-alternative/ (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19]  California could be next state to bypass the bar exam, REUTERS (Sept. 21, 2023)  https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/california-could-be-next-state-bypass-bar-exam-2023-09-21/ (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Thank you to Anne Hoover for participating in this feature article.

[33] Pennsylvania is set to debut the NextGen Bar Exam in July 2026, which “will test a broad range of foundational lawyering skills, utilizing a focused set of clearly identified fundamental legal concepts and principles needed in today’s practice of law.” About the NextGen Bar Exam, NEXT GEN BAR EXAM https://nextgenbarexam.ncbex.org/. (last visited Feb. 14, 2024).

[34] Steps to Become a Lawyer/Attorney in Pennsylvania, WILEY UNIVERSITY SERVICES https://www.lawyeredu.org/pennsylvania/#:~:text=The%20Pennsylvania%20Board%20of%20Law%20Examiners%20requires%20that%20you%20receive,Canada%2C%20or%20any%20U.S.%20territories. (last visited Sept. 24, 2023).

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