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Iowa lawyers could see Bar Exam changes

BY NICK MOFFITT | AUGUST 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa law students may become lawyers faster, depending on an Iowa Supreme Court decision.

The court held a hearing in Des Moines on Wednesday regarding the potential change to Iowa’s bar-admission process.

The hearing, which was announced in May, had written comments from more than 150 people in the legal profession, and 23 spoke during the hearing. Under discussion was whether diploma privilege, which grants students who complete certain academic thresholds and take specific classes the immediate ability law practicing under the Iowa Bar.

Although University of Iowa Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who spoke at the hearing on her own accord, was at first against the proposal; she said she now agrees with the possible change.

”[It is] superior to the current examination because it ensures greater engagement, understanding, and retention of the topics,” she said.

Onwuachi-Willig said 15 to 20 separate exams over the three years of law school would be beneficial because of knowledge retention, as opposed to the cramming usually associated with the exam.

After the meeting, both Onwuachi-Willig, as well as law Associate Dean Linda McGuire, were critical of the current bar exam.

“There is going to be no perfect system for screening, there never will be, but the bar exam is seriously flawed,” McGuire said. ”People pass it because they do well on tests, and people who should be lawyers fail it because they are just bad test-takers.”

The Iowa State Bar Association recommended the Iowa Supreme Court adopt diploma privilege for a few reasons, with one being about student debt.

An average UI law student will graduate with $95,754 borrowed during law school; this figure does not include undergraduate debt, according to the report released by the Bar Association.

Students are allowed around two months to find work after they are sworn in before the loan grace period ends and repayment must begin, after spending the majority of their time studying for the bar exam in July, according to the report.

Beyond the economic scope of allowing diploma privilege, the Bar Associate cites a very low failure rate in recent years.

According to the report, from 2008 to 2013, 408 graduating students from the UI College of Law took the bar exam for the first time. Only about 2.9 percent failed both their first and second tries.

At one point, up to 32 states had the possibility for diploma privilege, according to the Iowa Supreme Court. Iowa previously allowed it from 1873 until 1884.

Kevin Kelly, an associate dean at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said people who enter from diploma privilege tend to feel more competent in their field than compared with those cramming for an exam taken over a few days.

“Compared with a lot of law schools, our curriculum [at Wisconsin] is much more involved,” Kelly said.

In place of the exam, he said, more emphasis is on practical examples during school as well as on professional-responsibility courses. 

The Iowa Supreme Court staff report was skeptical of instituting the diploma privilege, saying, “The bar examination does perform a screening function that is not being accomplished elsewhere.”

Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court has the ability to decide on who is admitted to the Iowa Bar. Iowa Supreme Chief Justice Court Mark Cady said during the hearing that the justices looked forward to considering all the feedback to inform their opinions.

UI law student Megan Horst said she thinks the bar exam is an important step to becoming a lawyer.

“It’s easy to say I wouldn’t want to take the bar exam,” she said. “But I want to be prepared to be a lawyer.”


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