COLUMN > A Note From the WSBA Executive Director
BY TERRA NEVITT
In June 2021,11 See wabarnews.org/2021/06/01/bar-in-brief-examining-the-bar-exam-exploring-alternative-models-for-licensing. I wrote about work being done to examine the process by which a person becomes a legal professional in Washington. In this issue of Bar News, we are excited to share the draft recommendations from the Bar Licensure Task Force, including multiple perspectives about why the Washington Supreme Court is considering historic changes to the bar admissions process.
By definition, every single one of us has brushed up against the Admission and Practice Rules (APR) (you may even have some deeply held beliefs about their value). If you have a license to practice law, you have likely passed a bar exam and character and fitness review. In addition, our admissions processes rely on you, members, who volunteer to do the work of grading the bar exam or serving on the Character and Fitness Board.
As a fully integrated bar, the WSBA has been delegated the authority of the Washington Supreme Court to administer and ensure the integrity of the admissions process. Our employees and volunteers live this body of work daily, and our knowledge comes with a steadfast obligation. Our highest priority is public protection. Full stop. We protect the public by recommending admission of only those who can demonstrate competency, good moral character, and fitness to practice law. As the executive director of the Bar, I can tell you that the staff and each of the volunteers that I have encountered that carry out this work do so with the utmost integrity and with equity and fairness as guiding principles. So in carrying out this work, they are the first to experience the tension when a particular rule subset or process is not working or when a new challenge or outlier or study compels us to wave a red flag.
Our advocacy comes in the form of recommending rule changes to the court and/or altering our own way of doing business within allowable parameters. For example, we continually refine the character and fitness application questions so that applicants need only disclose information relevant to the most current interpretation of the APR factors. We recently eliminated questions about matters resolved in juvenile court. Washington has also been a leader in the effort to destigmatize mental illness in the context of bar admissions. Based on a recommendation from a workgroup we formed with representation from disability rights organizations, the court in 2016 adopted APR amendments that fundamentally shifted the definition of “fitness to practice law”22 See Kevin Bank & Emily Cooper, “Changes to the Character and Fitness Rules: Amendments for a New Era,” NWLawyer, Dec. 2016/Jan. 2017, at 13. to focus on conduct and not mental health. I am incredibly proud that we were one of the first states to remove questions about mental health and substance use issues from our application for admission.
In terms of the bar exam, we support the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ work to address relevance and equity concerns about the current Uniform Bar Exam (read more about this issue on page 38). We also focus on exam administration that prioritizes applicants’ well-being, security, comfort, and empowerment. We work to demystify the process and respond to feedback. As an example, when the pandemic forced us to hold a remote exam, we held live Q-and-A sessions with applicants and modified our administration in response to community concerns and feedback. We also provided hotel rooms to ensure a safe exam site for those that didn’t have a suitable location of their own.
What I hope to convey is how deeply we at the WSBA think about admission to the practice of law. It keeps me up at night, considering how to protect the public—not just the worry of letting unqualified candidates in, but also the inverse: a fear that the systems we’ve established and administered for decades are exacerbating the access-to-justice gap and lack of representation in the legal community.
When then-Chief Justice Debra Stephens created the Bar Licensure Task Force in 2020, its mission was to study the efficacy of our bar exam and character and fitness process and their potential adverse effects on certain groups of people. It was with a sense of eagerness and honor that our WSBA representatives—Chief Regulatory Counsel Renata de Carvalho Garcia and Board of Governors members Jordan Couch and Brent Williams-Ruth, alongside myself—stepped up to serve.
Three years later, the task force has issued its final reports, and here is my perspective: Some sort of exam and character review have been part of bar licensure since Washington’s inception;33 WSBA records indicate “good moral character” and examination for possession of the “requisite qualifications and learning” have been on the books since Washington’s territorial laws of 1863. and while the bar exam certainly needs a modern makeover (again, see page 38), it will likely remain the competency benchmark for many applicants. But—and this is a big but—many, many studies show conclusively that using the bar exam as the only competency benchmark systemically and negatively impacts qualified applicants in communities of color.44 See “A Proposal for the Future of Washington State Bar Admissions” at
www.courts.wa.gov/appellate_trial_courts/SupremeCourt/?fa=supremecourt.LicensureTaskForce. Morally speaking, we all want an admissions process that is fair, equitable, and narrowly tailored to protect the public. Practically speaking, we need a diverse, robust, and healthy community of legal professionals if we ever hope to close the access-to-justice gap and instill confidence among all Washingtonians that our legal system is effective, just, and trustworthy. Towards that end, one of the task force’s most important recommendations is the creation of multiple pathways to licensure that will allow applicants a variety of ways to demonstrate their competence.
And don’t let that report steal the spotlight from other significant recommendations to clarify and modernize our character and fitness review factors and timing; and to support professionals—not just at the singular point of time of admissions—but throughout their career with ethics guidance, practice management advice, and well-being resources, as well as support from colleagues and mentors.
Whatever the outcome, we stand ready at the Washington State Bar Association to continue to implement the court’s admissions process with fidelity, just as we will continue to advocate for changes that we believe, through frontline experience, will best protect the public and support access to justice.
My thanks to you, for coming along this APR journey with us. Please read more about the task force’s work and recommendations in this magazine, and offer your feedback by Jan. 5, 2024, via firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. See Kevin Bank & Emily Cooper, “Changes to the Character and Fitness Rules: Amendments for a New Era,” NWLawyer, Dec. 2016/Jan. 2017, at 13.
3. WSBA records indicate “good moral character” and examination for possession of the “requisite qualifications and learning” have been on the books since Washington’s territorial laws of 1863.
4. See “A Proposal for the Future of Washington State Bar Admissions” at