"My fear is that it will negatively impact the third year of the educational experience and essentially turn the third year into a bar prep course," said Arizona assistant secretary of state Jim Drake, who sits on the committee. "I don't think that's the right way to go. I see this more as a marketing idea." Getting students admitted to the bar sooner can only help the law schools' rate of placing graduates in legal jobs, and thus their U.S. News & World Report rankings, he added.
Both Miller and Sylvester discounted Georgia's experience. For one thing, law schools there did not modify their curricula to help students balance exam prep and class work. Moreover, the economic circumstances are vastly different. "At that point in time, applications to law school were going up; demand was going up," Miller said. "Law schools were in a golden era they could get tuition dollars and outside support. They could hire faculty and give scholarships. This is a wildly different era both for legal education and legal practice, and we think we're responding to this era, now."
The Arizona Supreme Court put off the proposal in August and submitted 10 questions to the law schools, seeking clarification about how they would identify eligible students and manage the program. The schools clarified that students would have to have completed 90 percent of their required credits; would be restricted to two semester hours of course work in January and February as they prepare for the exam; and could only have eight semester credits left to complete following the exam. (Typical course loads range between 14 and 17 credits, administrators said, although 3Ls often take fewer hours during their final semesters.) The students consequently would have to squeeze larger course loads into their 2L years.
The revised proposal was enough to assuage the advisory committee's doubts in November, it endorsed the concept in a 4-3 vote, although Drake said he and three other opponents were unable to attend the meeting.
Even if the court signs off on the proposal, not all students will want to take the bar exam early. The University of Arizona recently polled 2Ls and found that 44 students 32 percent of the class would sit for the bar exam in February if that were possible. Administrators at Arizona State likewise anticipate a relatively small percentage of students would opt in.
The fact that Arizona earlier this year became one of seven Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) states creates an interesting angle to the discussion. In theory, 3Ls seeking admission to any UBE state could take the February bar in Arizona, assuming they meet the coursework criteria, and be admitted as soon as they graduate. However, different states have different admissions rules, and not all UBE states would necessarily recognize a bar exam taken before graduation, Miller said.
If Arizona does begin allowing 3Ls to take the exam early potentially as early as the February 2014 sitting Chin expects other states to take notice. "I haven't met anybody who thinks students aren't ready to take the bar after five semesters," he said. "Given that, why do we make students incur this additional expense? I think there will be a lot of interest from other states looking to follow suit."
Karen Sloan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.