The state board that licenses attorneys to practice in Minnesota has launched a comprehensive study that could offer new avenues in the profession as early as 2026.
Minnesota is one of 38 states that require new attorneys to pass the Universal Bar Exam, a grueling test that came under increased scrutiny last year.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, some states allowed law graduates to postpone the two-day, 12-hour exam for public health reasons. Meanwhile, the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and subsequent racial unrest that summer raised awareness about the role of the bar exam in keeping people of color out of the profession.
Criticism of the bar exam is nothing new, but “it certainly had a lot of momentum with everything that happened last summer,” said Emily Eschweiler, director of the Minnesota State Board of Law Examiners.
two years study
The board had announced in June that it would take two years to study the bar exam, its history in the state and the impact of being a state that admits lawyers on the basis of their marks. With the changes coming in the exam, the time had come for the review, which will be effective in 2026.
But the Minnesota board will look beyond testing to consider “alternative options for determining eligibility for licensure,” such as apprenticeship-style models or “diploma privileges,” which in Wisconsin means completing law school in the state. Any person who can practice law. taking an exam.
“Over the past year there has been a lot of discussion about whether exams should be practice and the only way to determine aptitude,” Eschweiler said.
In 2023 the board will submit recommendations to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ultimately decides how lawyers are certified to practice here.
Associated Justice Barry Anderson, liaison to the Supreme Court’s Board of Examiners, said Thursday that the court is “definitely open to discussion of the ways in which we license attorneys.
“I am not ready to say that there is a problem with the bar exam,” he said, “but I am also not ready to say that we will not be open to the options that are proposed to address the concerns of the people.” Could be.”
Separately, the Minnesota State Bar Association is preparing a request that the Supreme Court form its own task force to study pathways into the profession.
“It is an issue – the bar exam, its efficacy, how well it measures readiness to enter the profession – that has been a topic of discussion across the country. And I think it has all been highlighted by the pandemic. ,” said association president Jennifer Thompson. “The time is really right to look at how we license lawyers and measure readiness to enter the profession.”
The Board of Examiner’s announcement said its study would also consider “the impact of the licensing process on diversity and equity”.
Just 9 percent of active lawyers in Minnesota are people of color — compared to 21 percent of the general population. The bar exam has played a part in that disparity.
Although Minnesota does not track pass rates by race or ethnicity, the American Bar Association said that in 2020, 88 percent of white candidates passed the test on their first try, compared to 80 percent Asian, 78 percent Native American, 76 percent White candidates passed the test. Hispanics and 66 percent black.
Upon his installation as dean and president of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law last week, Anthony Nidwicki said the bar exam was “created by white people to exclude others from the profession.”
“The bar exam is racist,” Niedwiecki declared. “It was created to keep certain people out of the profession, and we should get rid of it. It does not test the skills needed to be a successful lawyer, and there are other ways to license lawyers that are more reliable and are justified.”
Justice Anderson does not agree that the racial difference in pass rates is a good reason to reconsider Minnesota’s reliance on the bar exam.
“Certainly, we want a diverse bar representing the people of Minnesota; that is certainly a goal that the court has,” he said. “I am not sure that this bar is linked to the exam.”
Eschweiler said that in addition to the Wisconsin model, his study aims to explore alternative avenues, such as New Hampshire’s Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program, where law students build a portfolio of work in real and simulated settings in lieu of bar exams.
Another idea, which Utah implemented last year during the pandemic, admits new lawyers to the bar after working under the supervision of an experienced attorney.
The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System last year called for a new approach to determining who is eligible to practice law. It said the skills that new lawyers require and cannot be harnessed through closed-book exams with time limits and multiple choice questions.
Dena Sonbol, dean of academic excellence at Michelle Hamline, agrees that there are problems with the bar exam.
“It tests a lot of memorization, whereas in real life as a lawyer you don’t have to remember,” she said.
However, adopting the Wisconsin model would be “complicated,” she said, requiring all three law schools in the state to adopt a common set of admissions standards and curriculum. She thinks more incremental changes are in store for the state.
“My biggest concern as a lawyer is making sure that the people who become lawyers are competent, efficient and ethical,” she said. “If there is a way to achieve this without the bar exam, I would certainly support it.”