Attorneys weigh in on proposal to drop bar exam as requirement

Proposal would save students money, keep more attorneys in state, official says

Trish Mehaffey
Published: January 16 2014 | 5:40 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:15 am in
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Law graduates must pass a grueling bar exam.

Passing the bar exam doesn’t make someone a competent attorney.

Passing the bar is a minimal requirement and shouldn’t be eliminated.

Eliminate the bar exam – it doesn’t even cover Iowa law.

Area attorneys interviewed this week have varying opinions about the Iowa State Bar Association’s recommendation to eliminate the bar exam requirement for Iowa law school graduates who plan to practice in the state.

The bar’s blue ribbon committee, which was set up last year to review licensing and legal education, recently proposed to eliminate the bar exam, adopt a uniform bar exam – more portable in 14 states for those leaving the state or coming from out of state to practice in Iowa, and adding an Iowa-specific law course to the curriculum. The ISBA’s board of governors has approved the proposal and the Iowa Supreme Court will likely consider the proposal this summer.

The proposal is based on Wisconsin’s diploma privilege rule, which doesn’t require graduates from the state’s two law schools to pass a bar if they practice in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court set up the diploma privilege rules for the law schools and it has been in place for many decades and been successful.

Guy Cook, president of Iowa State Bar Association, said the proposal wouldn’t work in every state but Iowa is similar to Wisconsin as it has two law schools which have consistently high numbers of students who pass the bar and because the law schools have a close working relationship with the bar and the court.

The committee’s goal was to increase the measure of competence, but this proposal also saves students money and keeps more attorneys in state, Cook said. Students have to wait about four months after graduation to receive bar exam results and many graduates take out loans for that period of time, according to the proposal.

According to statistics from the University of Iowa College of Law, a graduate has more than $95,000 in debt. Drake University Law graduates incur more than $106,000, according to the America Bar Association.

Cook said if school debt is lowered it could benefit rural areas that need lawyers but current graduates can’t opt for a lower salary in a rural practice because of their high debt. The diploma privilege would also be incentive for more graduates to stay and practice in state.

Tim Semelroth, partner of RSH Legal in Cedar Rapids and committee member, said the bar exam has evolved over the years. It’s not today what it was when he took it 16 years ago and even more different from what lawyers took 25 years ago. The exam he took included questions pertaining to Iowa law but not today. It’s about 200 multiple choice and some essay questions over general principles of law.

“Passing the bar doesn’t make you a competent attorney,” Semelroth said. “It’s the three years of law school. As an employer of attorneys, I would rather hire someone who has knowledge of Iowa law and demonstrated academic achievement in their three years attending one of our two highly regarded and well ranked law schools.”

Semelroth pointed out the proposal doesn’t eliminate the moral character and fitness review or the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which are more important when considering protection of the public. The committee discovered looking at the complaints against attorneys that few involved lack of knowledge about the law, they concerned ethical issues.

Mike Weston, partner of Lederer, Weston and Craig in Cedar Rapids and president of DRI-Voice of the defense bar, a national defense attorneys organization, said the bar exam is a licensing tool.

“If a student graduates law school they are competent to practice law,” Weston said. “It’s (bar exam) not going to screen anybody necessarily. On the flip side, some graduates may encounter an employer who wants them to pass the bar or if they are going to leave the state, then they would want to take the bar.”

Mike Lahammer, Cedar Rapids attorney, said he looked at the proposal as positive and as a great incentive to keep more graduates in the state.

Dave O’Brien, attorney with Willey Law, said someone who passes the bar “isn’t even close” to being a competent attorney.

“They need to be mentored and tutored, and get on the job training,” O’Brien said. “But as an employer, I wouldn’t have any apprehension hiring a graduate (from UI or Drake), who hasn’t taken the bar.”

Alison Werner Smith, attorney with Hayek, Brown, Moreland and Smith in Iowa City, said anything that encourages young lawyers to stay in state is appropriate to consider. If the court moves ahead with the proposal, she hopes those that might be clients someday would provide “public comments,” which the court allows before it adopts any recommendation or proposal.

Roger Stone, attorney with Simmons, Perrine, Moyer and Bergman in Cedar Rapids, said the bar exam serves a valid purpose for eliminating those who can’t meet the minimal requirement.

“With falling (law school) enrollments, there is more pressure to keep all students on track and graduate them, but under this proposal more marginally successful law students will graduate and be admitted to practice, which in my opinion, is an unhappy situation fraught with dangers for Iowa citizens.”

Carolyn Russell, attorney with Phelan, Tucker, Mullen, Walker, Tucker and Gelman in Iowa City, said the bar was the “most stressful two weeks” that she wouldn’t wish upon anyone. However, she admits she learned a lot and thinks it gave her a good overview of different areas of law.

“I don’t know if I would have the same confidence and knowledge base if I hadn’t taken it,” Russell, who graduated from UI law school last year, said.

Stephen Jackson Sr., attorney with Dallas Lynch in Cedar Rapids, said the exam teaches a young lawyer how to handle pressure and stress, but admitted he had no objection to the proposal because the bar exam isn’t the same as when he took it. His exam had written questions which tested “your thinking process, not just multiple guess.”


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