Oregon moves closer to a bar exam alternative

REUTERS/Yara Nardi
  • Oregon is the first state, other than Wisconsin, to consider licensing a sizable cohort of new lawyers without the bar exam
  • Two proposed alternative pathways got an early green light from the state's high court on Tuesday

(Reuters) - The Oregon Supreme Court has signaled its early support for allowing some attorneys to become licensed without taking the bar exam, in a move that has been closely watched by other states.

The court on Tuesday “approved in concept” one state bar proposal that would allow law graduates to become licensed after working under the supervision of an experienced attorney for 1,000 to 1,500 hours, and another under which Oregon law students would spend their last two years of law school completing a series of practice-based coursework.

Currently, only Wisconsin maintains an ongoing "diploma privilege" that enables graduates of the state's two law schools to be licensed without passing the bar. New Hampshire allows a small cohort of law students who complete a specialized curriculum to bypass the bar. But the Oregon proposals would be larger in scale, offering bar exam alternatives to law students within and outside of the state.

The proposals from the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners generated interest from bar exam reformers nationwide who hope they will become a model for other states. Critics of the test say it relies too heavily on the memorization of law, and doesn't gauge the myriad practical skills new lawyers need.

Oregon was one of five states that adopted some form of diploma privilege in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing law graduates to become licensed without taking the bar exam. But all five states have since returned to requiring the bar exam.

The alternative pathways in Oregon will still require further approval from the court, which has the final say on attorney licensing. But the Tuesday votes clears the way for the Board of Bar Examiners to establish a committee that will nail down the details and implementation.

“It’s hard to go so far without a mutual commitment from the judiciary," said Willamette University law dean Brian Gallini, who served on the initial state bar task force that spent more than a year developing the proposals. "That’s what we got yesterday."

Read more:

Oregon takes a step forward in alternative licensure of attorneys

California bar approves temporary licensure program for new law school grads

Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com