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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Iowa proposes dropping bar exam for state law graduates

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 | 1:42 p.m. CDT

The requirement that law school graduates pass a grueling two-day examination to be admitted to practice is a rite of passage most lawyers will never forget and, God willing, will never have to repeat.

Upon passing the exam, lawyers enter an elite club that has a monopoly on the practice of law. Thus, it would seem lawyers would be loath to give up this special status conferred by the bar exam.

Yet the Iowa State Bar Association has proposed doing just that, at least for graduates of the Drake University and University of Iowa law schools, the only law schools in Iowa.

Graduates of those schools who intend to practice in Iowa would be granted a "diploma privilege," meaning they would be exempt from taking the exam.

A 16-member committee created by the bar association recommended this change for a number of reasons, including the belief that Drake and the UI adequately educate law students without making the students go to the added expense and stress of a test that the vast majority of them ultimately pass.

The bar association deserves credit for proposing a radical change that would put Iowa in the company only one other state — Wisconsin — that offers a diploma privilege.

At a time when Iowa should be rethinking the proliferation of licensing of everything from hair styling to teeth whitening, it is refreshing that leaders of the legal profession would challenge the need for a licensing examination that has been in place for 130 years.

Iowa lawyers, however, are deeply divided over the proposal, based on the large volume of written comments submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court and testimony before the court in a daylong hearing last week.

Many lawyers worry that the change would diminish the reputation of the legal profession, that it could have unintended consequences for future lawyers and could put the public at risk of incompetent lawyers.

Those concerns seem overblown. At best, the current bar exam clearly is a deeply flawed measure of minimum competence.

The exam is intended to protect the public by screening out the unfit. Yet, between 350 and 650 complaints were filed annually over the past decade against Iowa lawyers for failing to ethically or properly represent their clients. All of those lawyers passed the Iowa bar exam.

Many lawyers say the current bar exam does not test on what they learned in law school. Rather, they say it measures how well they can regurgitate facts crammed into their heads during a bar-review course before the exam.

The product of that cramming is soon forgotten and has little practical value to their work, in part because the test does not cover any Iowa law.

Indeed, one lawyer who took the test just three years ago testified she could not pass the test today, and one member of the Supreme Court speculated that neither he nor his six colleagues could pass it cold.

As the bar association proposal implies, it's hard to see the need for a comprehensive post-graduation exam if Iowa's law schools are properly screening applicants, teaching basic legal concepts and maintaining rigorous academic standards.

The Iowa Supreme Court's responsibility in regulating the legal profession is not just to protect the public from incompetence but to assure that the lawyers licensed to practice in Iowa are prepared to serve the interest of fair and equal justice.

The current bar exam is doing neither. It postpones graduates' entry into the workforce and adds to the staggering burden of debt that law school graduates carry.

It is not clear, however, that a diploma privilege for two Iowa schools is the right solution. Too much of the evidence on both sides is anecdotal, and more objective research is needed on other alternatives, perhaps by a court-appointed commission that looks at licensing regimes for other professions.

The Iowa State Bar Association proposal, while laudable, should be seen not as an end but as the beginning of a search for an alternative that would be widely supported by the legal profession and the public.

Copyright Des Moines Register. Distributed by the Associated Press.


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