Monday, December 5, 2011

Change is in the air...The Uniform Bar Exam

The temperature is cooling and the brightly colored leaves are beginning to lose their hold. Autumn vividly embodies transition and change. However, the leaves are not the only things changing; changes are also underway with regard to the bar exam.

The Uniform Bar Examination is gaining popularity. Recently, Nebraska and Colorado became the latest jurisdictions to adopt the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE). Other States that have begun administering the UBE or have adopted it for future administrations are: Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana (conditional approval), North Dakota, and Washington. Susan Case, The National Conference of Bar Examiner’s Director of Testing, announced at this fall’s NCBE’s Anatomy of a Bar Exam Conference that several other jurisdictions are currently considering adopting the UBE as well. Decisions are still pending for Utah, the District of Columbia, and others.

The biggest news regarding this significant change is that Washington State (my home state) will begin administering the Uniform Bar Examination in the summer of 2013. Washington has been a holdout state (along with Louisiana, who is also now considering changes to their exam) until now. Washington State’s current bar exam is essay only. Yes, it is true, presently WA does not require the MPT, MBE, or the MPRE; at least not until the summer of 2013 when the UBE will first be given in Washington.

Some of you may be asking, “What is the UBE and how it is different from what states are currently administering?” Although, the Uniform Bar Examination does not differ greatly from what most states are administering twice a year, there are a few exceptions and some potential benefits with its adoption. The Uniform Bar Exam consists of the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) (200 multiple choice questions), the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) (six essays), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) (two 90 minute closed universe legal writing tasks). For the UBE, the MBE is worth 50%, the MEE is worth 30%, and the MPT is worth 20% of the overall score. The overall score, or the “UBE score”, is the important number in this equation.

Score portability is the major selling point for this exam. But it is important to remember that the UBE score is portable, not the applicant’s pass status. Therefore, if an applicant passes the UBE in one jurisdiction, they may not pass in another. Admission is not automatic. An applicant needs to reach a passing UBE score in each jurisdiction for which they are applying. Therefore, a higher score on the UBE allows for greater ease of portability.

Other factors may also influence whether the creation and adoption of the UBE produce a positive impact on the ability to move from state to state in search of legal work. For one, UBE scores do not last forever. Thus, once a student takes the UBE, the score is only portable for a time frame determined by the state accepting the UBE score. What this means in reality is that portability may be short lived unless the applicant obtains licensure in multiple jurisdictions soon after taking the UBE.

While maintaining a license to practice law in multiple jurisdictions could be a positive step in one’s legal career, it is also fraught with possible hardships; namely, financial ones. According to the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (produced by NCBE and The American Bar Association), applications fees for bar admission cost between $100- $1500 depending on the jurisdiction. Additionally, in order to maintain multiple licenses, yearly license renewal fees, pro bono requirements, and mandatory Continuing Legal Education credits may be required in each jurisdiction. In light of the state of the US economy, fees and requirements such as these may pose a genuine disadvantage to holding multiple bar licenses.

Will the advent of the UBE create more lawyer migration and/or provide more job opportunities for new law graduates? Potentially, yes. Here is the bright side of the UBE. The UBE could create more opportunities for new law grads by giving them more flexibility in where they are able to seek employment. Considering the legal job market, this could be a huge benefit for new attorneys willing to migrate to more marketable jurisdictions.

While in theory the UBE appears to have many benefits, more seasons of UBE test taking need to pass before this question can be precisely answered. Missouri and North Dakota administered the first UBE in February 2011, Alabama in July 2011, Colorado and Idaho will administer the UBE in February 2012, Nebraska anticipates the effective date of adoption to be January 1, 2013, while Washington will administer the UBE in July 2013. Once the UBE is underway in more jurisdictions and UBE transfer data is compiled by the NCBE, we will likely see the true benefits of the Uniform Bar Exam.

Until these benefits emerge, it is important to have students thoughtfully consider where they would like to live and work before applying to take the bar exam. The UBE will likely allow law grads greater mobility but not without a potential price. Although an essential rite of passage, the bar exam is not a task worth repeating and if the UBE makes that possible I hope we see more states sign on.

*Information regarding the UBE and UBE jurisdictions obtained from the NCBE and ncbex.org.

(LisaYoung)

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