Alternative to bar exam approved in landmark Oregon Supreme Court decision

Prospective lawyers no longer need to pass the bar exam to become licensed in Oregon following a decision Tuesday by the state Supreme Court.

The Oregon State Bar can now license law school graduates who submit a portfolio of their work practicing law for an independent evaluation as an alternative to the traditional exam, a change the leader of Willamette University’s College of Law has pushed for years.

The court unanimously approved the new Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination, which will allow graduates to complete 675 hours of legal work supervised by an experienced attorney. That’s the amount of time most people study for the bar exam, according to a news release from the university.

Some leaders of Oregon’s legal profession worked for three years to create alternative paths for law school graduates to become licensed to practice law in the state. Brian Gallini, Willamette’s law school dean,served on a state bar task force which developed two proposed alternatives for licensure without taking the bar.

Gallini told Salem Reporter he still felt some disbelief after seeing the ruling handed down in person. “It didn’t totally feel real,” he said.

His first thought after leaving the courtroom was that he needed to schedule the next hearing on his calendar before it hit him. “There is no more next hearing,” he recalled thinking.

Gallini said the new pathway focuses on skills that the public demands of newly licensed lawyers. 

He told Salem Reporter last year that law schools have previously been incentivized to teach students how to pass the bar exam, with less of a focus on practical skills attorneys use in their day-to-day work.

The bar exam is a grueling multi-day test that about 40% of test takers fail, according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

Gallini said the committee that recommended the alternative path have never opposed the bar exam, in part because the new pathway will only allow licensure in Oregon. Many students prefer the exam because their scores could be accepted for licensure in other states. 

Most states use a national bar exam, but each state sets its own score which students must earn to pass the exam. Oregon’s score is in the middle among participating states, meaning a student who “fails” locally could still be licensed 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, according to data from the American Bar Association.

Many attorneys have also argued the test is a poor assessment of how well students will perform as lawyers because it focuses more on theoretical knowledge than practical skills and is closed-book, while lawyers often perform extensive research in their day-to-day work.

Gallini said there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes about a substitute for the bar exam in Oregon.

The increasing sentiment that the new option is overdue has come a long way from the criticism he heard early on that, “You’re lowering the bar. You’re lowering rigor. You’re lowering the standards,” he said. “That perspective is still there, but the volume of that voice has turned down dramatically.”

“I think the reason for that is there’s been a lot of really good and intentional work done by a number of folks to socialize what Oregon is doing both at the statewide, the regional and the national level,” he said.


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

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.