Why Willamette’s law school dean wants alternatives to the bar exam

Brian Gallini, dean of Willamette University’s College of Law (Courtesy/Willamette University)

When Brian Gallini talks to lawyers who have recently hired his former students, he often gets the same question.

Gallini, dean of Willamette University’s College of Law, said employers often have to train newly minted attorneys on common tasks.

“Dean, your grads are very intelligent, but why do I have to teach them how to write a motion to suppress or how to draft a civil complaint?” Gallini said he’s asked.

The answer is a relatively simple one: to become lawyers in the U.S., graduates typically have to pass the bar exam, a grueling multi-day test that about 40% of test takers fail, according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

“The incentive structure is for law schools to teach students how to pass the bar exam, not necessarily to do the things that employers expect,” Gallini said.

But in Oregon, that may soon be changing.

Gallini is among those in Oregon’s legal profession who have pushed for alternative paths for prospective attorneys seeking a license. He served on an Oregon State Bar task force which last year developed two proposed alternatives for law school graduates to become licensed to practice law in Oregon without taking the bar.

One, an “experiential pathway,” would allow law students to complete a two-year curriculum focused more on practical skills attorneys use in their day-to-day work, and be evaluated by a final portfolio or examination.

The change would allow prospective attorneys to spend more of their law school time drafting legal documents and simulating other common tasks like interviewing clients, depositions and trials.

A second option, called “supervised practice,” would allow a law school graduate or student to enroll in 1,000 to 1,500 hours of legal work supervised by an experienced attorney, about nine to 12 months of full-time legal practice, as an alternative to the bar.

The Oregon Supreme Court on Jan. 11 unanimously approved the two ideas in concept, though details on when and how they’ll be implemented still need to be worked out and get the court’s approval.

Gallini said the bar exam isn’t going anywhere. Many students prefer it because it’s accepted across the U.S., allowing them to apply for licensure in other states.

“This is not a campaign against the bar,” he said.

But he said people outside the legal profession often misunderstand the exam and how it functions currently.

Most states use a national bar exam, but each state sets its own “cut” – the score students must earn to pass the exam for that state. Oregon’s is in the middle among participating states, meaning a student who “fails” the bar for Oregon could be admitted to practice law in 17 other states.

Prospective lawyers of color, particularly Black lawyers, are much less likely to pass the bar exam than white test-takers.

And many attorneys have argued the test is a poor assessment of how well students will perform as lawyers, since it focuses more on theoretical knowledge than practical skills and is closed-book, unlike the day-to-day work lawyers do which often requires extensive research.

Gallini doesn’t think the bar is without merit, but said it shouldn’t be the only pathway to practicing law.

“We’re basically using the same licensing instrument we were using decades ago,” he said. “This is an overdue upgrade to licensure that seeks to marry up a more rigorous assessment with the skills we know newly-licensed lawyers need.”

Right now, there’s no set timeframe for when the alternative pathways might be available for law school graduates.

Gallini said the changes will require Oregon’s three law schools, which include Lewis & Clark and the University of Oregon, to shift their curriculum and incorporate more hands-on work.

That’s likely to take some time and will require input from legal faculty.

“We want the law schools to be excited about this,” he said. “We don’t want this to be top down.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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