Bar in Brief > Examining the Bar Exam: Exploring Alternative Models For Licensing

COLUMN > A Note From the WSBA Executive Director


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Every licensed legal professional has some version of the same tale. I vividly remember taking the multistate exam in Washington, D.C., and the all essay exam in Washington state at the Meydenbauer Center. I also remember being so wiped at the end of the exam that I drove onto a freeway off-ramp and narrowly avoided a significant car accident! I’m sure you, too, have vivid, visceral memories about sitting for and overcoming that final barrier for licensure: the bar exam.

It’s a legal-profession rite of passage that for decades has gone largely unchanged and unchallenged. We are bonded by the ghost of stress hormones and endorphins surrounding the bar exam experience, right down to a shared remembrance of the general milieu—sitting for hours in a hushed and frantic conference room, elbow to elbow (or nearly so) with other hopeful future colleagues.

However, something remarkable happened last year, and for the first time in the history of the WSBA, two groups of new admittees will have quite a different tale to tell regarding their path to licensure. Due to COVID-19 health regulations and in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances facing applicants, the Washington Supreme Court authorized diploma privilege for most bar applicants signed up for the summer 2020 bar exams (meaning those who earned a J.D. from an accredited institution did not have to take an exam to become licensed). As pandemic conditions continued, and with the National Conference of Bar Examiners offering a remote option for administering the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), the court authorized another first for the winter 2021 exam: online administration for all applicants.

Whew—let me tell you, there has been an immense range of emotions and opinions about both of these court decisions. During my time at the state Bar, this is the topic that seems to have garnered the most spontaneous feedback from members. It’s touched a real nerve. On the one hand, competency of licensees is a huge concern; on the other, questions abound about the efficacy and equity of the exam.

In recognition of these questions, the Washington Supreme Court recently convened a Bar Licensure Task Force to evaluate current requirements for licensing lawyers and to consider whether the court should consider alternatives. The task force, with representatives from law schools and the WSBA, among many others, will look at the history of the bar exam and recent national studies, including a comprehensive report by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.11

While the court makes the ultimate decision about licensure requirements, we at the WSBA have the responsibility for carrying out those rules—and this is the unique vantage point from which I want to share my perspective about the bar exam and other admissions processes.

Personally, I want to support the success of every single person who aspires to join the legal community in Washington. Professionally, my priorities for the admissions process are twofold: First, the state Bar must uphold the court’s rules with consistency, equity, and integrity; and second, we must advocate for change when we identify admissions requirements and processes that are inequitable, ineffective, or simply outdated.

I’m not saying I have the answers, but I am encouraged that we are asking the questions. As the court’s task force progresses, we at the WSBA will be on hand to provide information and experience from a century’s worth of admissions regulation. We will firmly support the task force’s efforts to “assess disproportionate impacts on examinees of color and first generation examinees,” as put forth in its charter. We will support our Board of Governors’ efforts to reach out to members to listen and gather feedback as widely as possible.22

And, ultimately, when the task force wraps up its work in December 2022, we at the state Bar will be ready to continue to implement the court’s decisions with fidelity, integrity, and equity.

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Lessons from the State’s First Remote Bar Exam

Due to COVID-19 health guidelines, the Washington Supreme Court—for the first time ever—authorized remote administration for the winter 2021 legal licensing exams. Many members and law students raised important questions about the remote platform, including equity concerns related to the use of facial-recognition software and AI-assisted proctoring. The WSBA shared these concerns and worked to make the process as smooth as possible for all exam takers. How did it go? In a post-exam survey, only 28 percent of lawyer applicants said they would prefer to take the exam in person if they had to do it again. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a great experience, 67 percent scored the remote environment between 7 and 10 (the mode was 9). Feedback from exam-takers characterized the experience as “positive” and “well managed.” The WSBA will continue to look for lessons learned as we prepare for the summer 2021 exam, which will also be remotely administered.

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Washington State Bar Association’s Bar Exam Fast Facts

» 2021 bar exams by the numbers:

  • Winter: 209 lawyer applicants, 41 LPO applicants, and 17 LLLT applicants.33 See page 27 for the winter 2021 bar exam pass list.
  • Summer (registered as of early May): 752 lawyer applicants, 77 LPO applicants, and 37 LLLT applicants.

» The WSBA administers three separate legal licensing (“bar”) exams, offered during the same time period each summer and winter: the Lawyer Bar Exam, the Limited Practice Officer (LPO) Bar Exam, and the Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) Bar Exam.

» When Washington shifted away from its state-specific exam and began administering the Uniform Bar Exam for lawyer applicants: 2013.

» Number of staff required on site to administer an in-person bar exam: 12-15 Bar employees and 35-40 proctors.

» Odd items candidates have tried to bring into the exam room in the recent past: lucky Troll dolls, rocks, pens/pencils, and shirts.

» Biggest disruption to an exam: Nisqually Earthquake in February 2001.

About the author
About the author

WSBA Executive Director Terra Nevitt can be reached at 206-727-8282 or:

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  3. 3. See page 27 for the winter 2021 bar exam pass list.