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Group wants to do away with bar exam

BY ALEKSANDRA VUJICIC | MAY 15, 2014 5:00 AM

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Students graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law will accept their diplomas Friday, but they can’t practice law quite yet.

First, they must take the bar exam and wait until fall for their results.

The Iowa State Bar Association proposed an alternative to taking the bar exam. Instead of having to pass the exam, students could take advantage of the “diploma privilege.” The Iowa Supreme Court is now taking public comment regarding the proposal.

The diploma privilege would allow students in Drake University Law School or the UI law school to receive their licenses to practice if they successfully complete three years of specified coursework that is determined by the Iowa Supreme Court, said Guy Cook, the president of the Iowa State Bar Association.

The students would still have to pass the character and fitness requirement, but a bar exam would no longer be necessary.

Cook said the current exam doesn’t necessarily test Iowa law.

“It’s not a good measure to ensure competency,” he said. “It’s one test over a series of topics; it’s basically a memory test.”

The bar association’s Blue Ribbon Committee was set up to look at ways to improve legal education and licensure. The committee unanimously voted to submit this proposal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Cook said the committee prefers a process that includes specified coursework, including a course that focuses on Iowa law, and testing students over three years.

Cook also said deans from both Drake and the UI law schools favor this proposal.

UI law Dean Gail Agrawal said it is necessary to have a mechanism to ensure that lawyers who are licensed to practice law possess minimal competence to do so.

But, she said, the current system of requiring the bar exam keeps young lawyers out of the marketplace and requires them to borrow money in order to cover living expenses for a longer period of time.

“During that period of time, many of them are unemployed or unemployable, and they are increasing their indebtedness to support themselves while they’re waiting for their licenses so that they can work,” Agrawal said.

She recognizes the bar exam’s validity.

“The bar exam is a rite of passage; almost everybody who currently has a license to practice has taken it,” she said.

She noted that the diploma privilege would also foster competence.

“I am confident that a student who is qualified for acceptance in the Iowa law school, who then takes this required curriculum that is connected with the diploma privilege and passes all of those courses, possesses the minimal competence to practice law in the state of Iowa,” Agrawal said. 

The bar association’s Blue Ribbon Committee also recommended that the state adopt the Uniform Bar Examination for students who choose to take the bar exam.

The Uniform Bar Exam is another version of the bar exam but is recognized across 14 states, which Agrawal said makes the credential more portable.

Matt Enriquez, a second year student in the UI law school, said the diploma privilege would minimize the burden of preparing and paying for the exam for those students who want to stay in Iowa to practice.

But he said the case could be different for students who want to practice in different states.

“Your mobility afterwards is a little more limited depending on how long you stay in Iowa and how long you practice in Iowa,” Enriquez said. “You’re most likely going to have to take a bar exam in another state if you decide to leave.”


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