Thu. Jul 29th, 2021

(The Center Square) – A legal task force is exploring more ways for law students in Oregon to pass the bar without having to pass a written test.

The idea comes from the Oregon State Bar’s Alternatives to the Exam task force, which formed in 2020 to brainstorm viable substitutes to the bar exam with work and academic experience. Debates over the merit of the bar exam arose in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw Oregon grant temporary diplomas to 2020 in-state law students with first-time bar exam scores of 86%. 

One proposed option would see law students in their last two years of law school submit a capstone project to the state Board of Bar Examiners upon graduation.

The second option would have law students work between 1,000 to 1,500 hours under the supervised practice of a licensed attorney before submitting a portfolio of work to the Board of Bar Examiners to demonstrate minimum competency.

“This is a tremendous and historic shift in the thinking around attorney licensure,” said Brian Gallini, dean of the Willamette University College of Law and a member of the task force. “That the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners endorsed these proposals without any changes also shows, fundamentally, a forward-thinking recognition that the bar exam as we know it is not the only way for new lawyers to show minimum competency.”

Written versions of the bar exam trace their origin back to the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Taking the test came with high fees, often targeted at ethnic and racial minorities subjected to widespread discrimination in the legal field. Critics argue the bar exam excludes such groups from the profession with fees in the hundreds of dollars, disproportionate failure rates for minorities and leading questions related to mental health.

Much of the country, the 150-page report found qualified as “legal deserts” and boasted few, if any, lawyers. In Idaho, where almost 70% of the state’s counties— 29 out of 44—have fewer than one lawyer per 1,000 people. Some counties have no lawyers at all.

Neighboring Oregon boasted 2.9 lawyers per 1,000 people in 2020, bringing it in line with 21 other states. Four counties in the state—Gilliam, Sherman, Wheeler and Morrow—had no lawyers east of the Cascades.

In June, the task force submitted its recommendations to the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners, which unanimously voted to advance them to the state Supreme Court. The high court will decide whether to adopt the recommendations within the coming months. 

If approved, the task force’s recommendations would allow law graduates in the Class of 2024 to be the first in Oregon to become lawyers through alternatives to the bar exam.