By Michael Virtanen
New York will next year begin using the uniform bar exam for lawyers that would enable them to practice in 15 other states, depending on their scores, the state’s top judge said Tuesday.
In his Law Day address, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called New York’s change “a huge step” toward a single national exam. Last year, more than 15,200 people took New York’s licensing test, more than any other state.
The judge said the move will allow more mobility with “a portable score,” particularly important now that it’s common for lawyers to switch jobs multiple times and relocate to different states. Also, it would make it easier for law offices to handle cases across state and international borders. It will help address some of the profession’s economic difficulties, he said.
Brooklyn Law School Dean Nick Allard contends that that the switch to a universal bar exam is a necessary step in the right direction to replace an existing testing structure that no longer fits the current legal landscape.
“The existing entrenched bar exam and licensing system is unpredictable, unfair, and unaffordable for too many graduates and takes too long from graduation day to the day you are sworn in to become a licensed lawyer,” Allard told the Eagle. “The existing bar exam does not test what the ABA and States require students to study to earn their JD, and it does not test what you need for practice. We can and we must do better. Otherwise we are shortchanging our students, the profession and the public.”
For Allard, a change to the testing structure is a welcome change to the testing institutions.
“[W]e can expect New York now to take back control and exercise more oversight over the national testing organization, the NCBE, that designs and scores the test,” he said.
The law school dean has previously spoken out against the bar examiners, penning a March op-ed for the National Law Journal titled “Too-Much-Power-Rests-with-the-National-Conference-of-Bar-Examiners?”
“Though NY long has been relying on the NCBE, that unregulated organization has lacked accountability and transparency,” Allard added in his statement to the Eagle.
Chief Judge Lippman noted that reduced law school employment affected by listed job prospects for attorneys played a role in the decision to adopt a uniform exam.
“Employment prospects for recent graduates are still grim, and more people are choosing to leave the field of law altogether,” Lippman said to a courtroom full of judges, other officials and lawyers. “Law school enrollment for first-year students has declined 30 percent in the past four years and is at the lowest level since 1973.”
The uniform exam is now used by Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
The exam has 200 multiple choice questions, two tasks on basic lawyering and six essay questions that test on laws of general application, Lippman said. The current New York exam already uses those same multiple choice questions and skill tasks. It also has five essay questions and 50 multiple-choice questions on New York law.
Along with next year’s switch to the uniform exam, applicants will have to take an additional online course to practice law in New York, which the judge called “the legal center of the United States, if not the world.” That will consist of videotaped lectures on New York-specific law and a “thorough and rigorous” online test, which will be developed by the State Board of Law Examiners, with help from legal academics and scholars.
Court officials plan to collect data for three years to see whether there are “adverse results” from the change, he said. “[The] data will be collected and reviewed to study the performance of the test and whether there are disparate impacts on different groups,” Allard further clarified.
But the reform of the bar examining process is far from over Allard noted. “The court’s announcement is hardly the final word. But a start has been made. In a few years we are likely to be able to look back and see this moment as a significant first step toward much needed reform.”
-Charisma L. Troiano, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, contributing