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Uniform Bar Exam Gains Favor

By Maureen Milford,
November 21, 2009

A movement to adopt a uniform bar exam that would make aspiring lawyers' scores portable from state to state and possibly save consumers money is gaining traction in several states but encountering opposition from others.

Missouri has been out front with implementation of a uniform bar exam and could give the first one as early as 2010, says Kellie Early, Missouri Board of Law Examiners executive director.

Jurisdictions including Colorado, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota are among those considering a uniform exam, bar officials in those jurisdictions say.

Others, including officials from New York, Delaware and California, say they have reservations about the idea.

Consumers of legal services could benefit if their lawyers could handle a matter that bridges two states, said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which supports the uniform exam.

Erica Moeser
National Conference of Bar Examiners

"For consumers, the out-of-pocket expenses would be less when a case involves multiple states," said Penny Miller, a North Dakota Board of Law Examiners official.

A uniform exam also "levels the playing field" and could address concerns about bias against historically underrepresented groups in admission to the bar, said Micah Yarbrough, director of bar programs at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del.

All states currently require their own bar exam, Moeser said. A national exam would benefit law graduates burdened with debt and facing a tight job market, she said.

Often students have to decide where they're going to take the bar before they even have a job offer, Moeser said. "One of the top three questions among law students is: Where should I sit for the bar?" Yarbrough said.

Most states would need the approval of their high courts to adopt a national test, Moeser said.

Bar officials from states including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Dakota attended a conference Nov. 2 in Phoenix.

Jerry Landau, government affairs director for the Arizona Supreme Court, said Arizona is "seriously looking at it." Chris Manos, executive director of the State Bar of Montana, said Montana is considering the exam, but cautions, "I believe it is not going to happen overnight."

Delaware is not anticipating any changes to its bar exam in 2010, according to Pamela Tikellis, chairwoman of the Delaware Board of Bar Examiners. New York and California have not committed to changes, Moeser said.

"It's not something we take lightly," said John McAlary, executive director of the New York State Board of Law Examiners. "We have to study it."

According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, 56,596 exams were given in July 2008, with 43,204 passing grades. Sheldon Kurtz, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, says the time has come for a uniform exam.

"There are general principles of law every applicant needs to know, and it doesn't matter if it's Iowa or Delaware," Kurtz said.

Milford reports for The News-Journal in Wilmington, Del.