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New Missouri exam makes lawyers more portable

By Heather Ratcliffe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Apr. 28--Soon state borders may no longer be hurdles for lawyers launching their careers.

This month, Missouri became the first state to adopt a plan to create a uniform bar exam for lawyers who want to practice in the United States.

With national law groups pushing for the change, the plan will bring the legal world on par with other professions that use one standard licensing test. It also will give lawyers who pass the exam more freedom in where they may practice.

"The idea is to have lawyers moving across state borders with greater ease," said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. "That's a huge benefit to new law graduates in these economically uncertain times."

Missouri will begin administering the uniform bar exam in February.

The new bar exam would drop any specific questions on state laws, instead focusing on general principles and best practices.

Committees with both the American Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Examiners have signed off on the benefits of the plan.

"The idea has been kicking around for decades, and it's finally gotten legs," Moeser said. "This is the direction the profession should be heading."

Officials say the uniform exam tests the level of competency for new lawyers while giving them more options after graduating law school.

"We're balancing the protection of public trust with what is becoming an obvious need for people to become more portable," said Judge Cindy Martin, of the Court of Appeals, who is president of the Missouri Board of Law Examiners.

Each state that signs on to the uniform bar test will be able to set its own passing grade and other criteria for admission to its bar. States also can limit the amount of time that a uniform test score is valid in their state.

Passing the uniform bar exam in Missouri "doesn't mean you are automatically admitted in another state," Martin said.

State officials said test-takers will notice little change in the focus and format of the test. That's because Missouri's bar exam in the last decade has steered away from testing the minuscule nuances of state law. The essay questions have been geared toward standard concepts.

The new uniform test will include six short essay questions and two long writing assignments. The current test has 10 short essays with one long answer.

The grading also will be adjusted. The multiple choice and essays will be weighted equally, whereas the previous test gave more weight to the essays, said Kellie Early, of the Missouri Board of Law Examiners.

Missouri's new and old tests both require test-takers to score 65 percent or better. The new passing score in Missouri will be 260 on a 400 point scale. The current test has a 2,000 point scale; 1,300 is passing.

Under the new test, each state can provide test-takers with tutorials in their unique laws. Missouri is still deciding what form those lessons will take. Whether an actual class or an online resource, the lessons will provide each lawyer with a new resource on Missouri law.

"These materials maybe a more helpful tool from a local law standpoint than having attorneys memorize details for the exam," Martin said.

The Missouri Supreme Court adopted the uniform bar exam this month. North Dakota is close to adopting it for next year. Five to 10 other states could be on board in the next few years, Moeser said. Illinois is considering the test but has made no decision.

Many states already have rules that allow a lawyer who has been practicing for some time to be admitted without taking the bar exam again. Some accept partial scores from the multiple choice section of another state's bar exam but require applicants to take the essay portion.

Advocates suggest that more states will sign on to the uniform bar exam once they seen the benefits. "There is no downside for our jurisdiction to be the first in line on this," Martin said. "It only enhances a law license in Missouri."