One of the most daunting prospects a recent graduate of law school has to face is the dreaded bar examination. For decades, each state had its own version of the test, but in 2011, Missouri rolled out a so-called uniform bar exam that fifteen other states have since implemented. The newest, and the most high-profile, state to join these ranks is New York.As the New York Times points out, this could lead to a “domino effect” in the legal landscape, in which other populous states like California, Florida, and Texas decide to introduce the uniform bar exam as well.
The Chief Judge of New York State, Jonathan Lippman, confessed in a recent statement that he views his home state as “the gold standard in terms of the profession of law,” but now realizes that “employment prospects for recent graduates are still grim” and that many freshly-minted attorneys have to travel elsewhere to find work. Moreover, enrollment in law school is down 23 percent over the last five years in New York.
Lippman explains, “We recognize it’s a global world and there has to be portability with the law license around the country. We think we would be sticking our heads in the sand if we don’t realize the practice of law doesn’t stop at state lines.” (States that have already adopted the test include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.)
Several established New York attorneys–like the president of the New York State Bar Association–bemoan the change, worrying that lawyers educated in New York would not be prepared to practice in the state. This presents a problem, “both for the protection of the profession and the public,” he opines.
In order to appease critics who would prefer local testing, half of the states that now use the uniform bar have added supplementary testing materials–usually additional essays and multiple-choice sections–to ensure test-takers have a working knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of their states. Law schools often prepare students for these specific sections with videotaped lectures and online materials. (New York’s new test is split into four sections: two on state law and two on “multistate” law.)
Many who are critical of standardized tests in general find a welcome change in this reformulated exam. A professor at New York University School of Law complains that local bar exams “test too much memorization on the intricacies of state law, which are irrelevant to the practice of law.” He goes on to say that “what we really should be testing [is] the understanding of concepts of legal reasoning.”
Agreeing, one New York Court of Appeals judge notes that this marks a shift toward an emphasis on practical skills: “[The new performance test is] basically a file that’s provided to a test-taker, and they have to do an exercise that a lawyer would do–write a memo, write a letter to the client. There will be more assessment of those kinds of lawyering skills.”
While New York’s choice has made a lot of headlines, it will be years before researchers have enough data to examine its effects.