Washinton State Says: Bye Bye Barbri

Court Says Bar Exam Not Needed to get Admitted to Practice Law

By Bruce Blackwell

I like standardized tests. Maybe because I am good at them. One of my sons, who is just as smart as I am
(he’ll say smarter) isn’t so good at them. Some of my brightest clients failed multiple times before they
passed the bar. I appreciate that there are very intelligent people who simply don’t test well, but…here’s
the fact: standardized tests are a reasonable way to measure competence. OK, maybe not always – maybe
they are a reasonable way to measure incompetence. But they do provide an even playing field.
In its magisterial wisdom, the Supreme Court of Washington State has ruled that one need not
take, let alone pass, a bar exam to be admitted to practice law there. Oregon made this change at
the start of this year. Other states are considering similar moves.
In Washington State, DEI was cited as one of the reasons for no longer requiring an exam to
practice law. California is considering DEI as a reason to offer alternatives to the exam to “avoid
the heavy expense of preparing for the traditional bar exam, a burden that falls disproportionately
on historically disadvantaged groups, including first-generation graduates, women and
candidates of color.”
I am as big a believer in DEI as anyone walking. I have battled for civil rights, voting rights, and
human rights, and still have the scars to prove it. But a bar review course runs anywhere from
$2200 to $3500 – that’s far from pocket change, but certainly not an exorbitant price of entry for
a professional career.
Passing the bar exam means a person has achieved an acceptable level of competence about the
law, just as medical boards establish a base line of expertise for doctors and the CPA exam does
for accountants. These exams tell clients that the professional they are engaging has a proven
threshold of knowledge.
Cost should not be a reason to waive the need to pass a qualifying exam. Rather than waiving the
exam, why not create a financing method to reduce the financial strain of taking the darn test?
That’s an answer, but it’s not the best or only answer, as I will explain in a minute.
This ruling has nothing to do with fairness. Are they saying that people of color and women can’t
pass a test? My wife would go bat sh*t crazy if I told her she’d get a break on a qualifying exam
simply because she was a woman. My immigrant grandfather, a first-generation graduate school
attendee, would never have accepted an opportunity to skip the exam that other, more well-
established people had to pass to get licensed.
This new ruling is precisely the opposite of fair to the very people it is intended to help. It gives
them a pass, and is disrespectful to their skills and hard work.

The bar exam waiver is most certainly not fair to the poor schnook from Spokane who hires a
lawyer who became an attorney because of the kindness of strangers –the attorneys who, under
this new ruling, agree to oversee budding lawyers for the required six months or 500 hours. Are
these overseers really paying attention and mentoring? Are they spending any time at all
supervising and teaching? All they really have to do is sign off on the hours the applicant
worked, with or without being mentored.
Under this ruling, in Washington State prospective lawyers need to have attended law school to
qualify for the non-bar-exam admission program. The exception is for law clerks, who can get
admitted without going to law school; they just need to complete some standardized courses and
roughly 10-12 weeks of work as a legal intern. That’s it.
I have 30 years of counseling lawyers on business management and career issues. Most of them
said they were fearful about taking the bar exam, and put in hours of serious study to pass the
test. But almost universally, they have told me they didn’t learn anything about practicing law
while in law school.
Washington State got it wrong. It’s not the bar exam requirement that should be removed. It’s
law school!
I have long been a believer in “reading for the law.” That’s how Abraham Lincoln did it. And
John Marshall. And John Jay. Lincoln even served as a bar examiner and determined who would
be admitted. Prospective lawyers back then needed to prove to experienced lawyers that they
were competent.
I have met many a law clerk and paralegal who knew more about law than the person for whom
they worked. I would rather hire them to represent me than the boss in the larger office. But first,
let them study and pass a test – if they do, they should be able to skip having to pay $100,000+
for law school.
The current attorney admission process is dysfunctional. It creates economic and practical
barriers to those who are not from privilege, or who don’t have the money or the three years
away from life to attend law school.
Those who feel passionate about law should be allowed to “read for the law,” study, then pass a
test to prove they remembered what they read and to demonstrate their competence.
How do you feel about this subject? If you agree with me, let me know. If you think I have my
head in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, also let me know. Are there better ways of handling
the bar admissions process? What are your ideas? All feedback is welcome. Send your thoughts
to bblackwell@careerstrategiesgroup.com I will post selected comments on my website.