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One bar exam to rule them all? NY jumps on universal legal bar bandwagon

May 6, 2015, 9:06 PM UTC
Photograph by Ragip Candan — Getty Images

The latest test of whether New York is truly a trendsetter involves the wonkiest of subjects: the legal bar exam.

On Tuesday, it became the 16th state–and by far the most populous–to the adopt what’s known as the Uniform Bar Exam, a legal entrance test that focuses primarily on general principles of law, rather than New York State law.

New York’s adoption of the UBE could create a “domino effect” among other states, said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. He also said that the reform “will enormously benefit law school graduates, the legal profession, and the public.”

The UBE gives test takers a portable score that they can use to practice law in the other states that have adopted the exam—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The test got its start in Missouri in 2011 and has since seen a wave of adoption. “We’ll eventually see near unanimity,” says Stephen Gillers, a professor at the New York University School of Law who studies the legal profession.

The current system requires applicants to complete a 200-question multi-state exam, five essays, and 50 multiple-choice questions on New York State law, and a multiple state performance test. Starting in July 2016, would-be lawyers in New York will still have to pass the 200-question multistate exam, but there will be no testing of specific New York State laws. Instead, test takers will have to complete six essays and two lawyer skill tasks written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Applicants will get a dose of New York State law from online courses, which they must take, and a short multiple choice exam that they’ll sit for afterward.

Supporters for a universal bar exam have used two primary arguments to make their case, according to William Henderson, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law who studies the legal industry. The first is one of fairness. “We have federal law, there shouldn’t be different state bar exams,” especially since the curriculum of law schools is mostly the same, he says. Adopting the uniform bar exam also frees states from having to create and grade their own tests—a timely and costly process. “States are throwing up the flag and are saying it’s too expensive to build their own exams. They’d rather have an expert body do it,” Henderson says. The Wisconsin-based National Conference of Bar Examiners prepares the UBE.

While law graduates will take the UBE at the very start of their career, it’s thought that passing the universal test could boost their career prospects the most a few years down the line. How? By increasing lawyers’ mobility.

“It’s a great advantage for young lawyers in that it enables them to have a seamless transition to a different state without having to study and sit for another bar exam.” Gillers says.

Because of the rigorous preparation required, taking a second or third bar exam turns lawyers off to opportunities in other states. But the UBE could remove that barrier. “This now makes life a whole lot simpler, especially for people whose first job is finite—a clerkship or fellowship,” he says.

The UBE could be quite useful, but it won’t be able to make much of a dent in a problem that’s been nagging the industry for years and is cascading through the legal education system with devastating effects: low employment among law school graduates.

Job placement rates have been dismal lately, with just 60% of 2014 law school graduates finding full-time jobs that require bar passage 10 months after graduation. That’s a mild improvement over recent years—it was 55% in 2011—but it’s likely due to smaller graduating classes. Law school enrollment has sunk to levels not seen since 1973, when there were 53 fewer law schools in the United States than there are now.

The employment problem isn’t necessarily because of a lack of lawyer mobility; it’s due to a lack of demand for legal work. The UBE could mean that law grads who’ve passed the New York UBE are more open to jobs in, say, Alabama and Nebraska. But it won’t create more jobs. “You’re still just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Gillers says.