Skip the bar exam? Maybe

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 17 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:15 am in
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The Gazette Editorial Board

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When news broke that the Iowa Supreme Court is considering a proposal to allow graduates of Iowa law schools who plan to practice in Iowa to skip taking the bar exam, we were skeptical.

On the surface, and from the outside, the creation of in-state “diploma privilege” looked like a bad idea. The exam seemed to us to be a necessary test of professional competency.

But as we’ve learned more, we realized the idea has merit. It unanimously was approved by a blue-ribbon panel of lawyers and judges convened by the Iowa State Bar Association, and by the association’s 45-member Board of Governors.

“Once you pull the curtain back and look at the data and details, this makes all the sense in the world,” ISBA President Guy Cook said. “But it is counterintuitive.”

For starters, we didn’t know that the current bar exam is written and scored by an out-of-state firm, and contains no questions about specific Iowa laws and practices. The switch to that standard test several years ago created a situation where test-takers must wait months before getting results.

That means, for many, a long wait to fully start their legal careers. For students carrying considerable debt, the gap has become another burden.

Any law students who hopes to take advantage of diploma privilege would be required to complete a series of courses on Iowa law and practices that currently are not required. Those courses would be reviewed and approved by the Iowa Supreme Court, so, unlike the bar exam, its content would undergo Iowa scrutiny.

Law students still would be required to take an ethics exam, and would be subject to a fitness and character evaluation. The latter would be beefed up under the proposal.

Iowa is home to two, high-quality law schools at the University of Iowa and Drake University. Backers of diploma privilege point out that students who make it to graduation have been rigorously tested for three years. The Iowa bar exam, which Cook said has a first-try passage rate of 94 percent, is no more rigorous.

Diploma privilege backers are convinced that a faster track to the profession will encourage more graduates to stay in Iowa, and perhaps to practice in rural communities that need lawyers.

Any rush to judgment on this proposal would be a mistake. It’s a big change, though we concede, upon further review, it could be a positive one. The Supreme Court should take a long, careful look at the proposal.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.com or (319) 398-8262

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