Adam West: “To be able to take control and finish early was a nice option,” he concluded.
Adam West: “To be able to take control and finish early was a nice option,” he concluded. (Photo courtesy of Adam West)

With three young children at home and his legal education costs ­mounting, Adam West, a third-year student at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, wasn’t ­looking forward to five unpaid months while he studied for the bar examination and awaited admission to practice after ­graduation. So when the Arizona Supreme Court approved a pilot program in late 2012 that allowed some students to take the February test one semester before they graduated, West was intrigued.

“My first reaction was, ‘That’s a cool idea.’ But I wasn’t ready to commit to it,” he said. “I didn’t want to add ­anything extra to my plate.”

West ended up being among 38 3Ls from Arizona’s three law schools who elected to participate in the state’s inaugural early bar sitting, according to a court spokeswoman. Their exam results won’t be available until May, but students in Arizona and legal leaders around country are keeping tabs on the two-year pilot program.

Meanwhile, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has proposed allowing third-year law students to take the test in February and spend most of their final semester doing pro bono work. And Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has asked law deans in her state whether to let students take the exam following their second year provided they’ve completed 60 credits. The law deans are due to report back to O’Connor in June.

“The idea is that law schools would feel more flexibility to experiment with co-ops and experiential learning,” University of Dayton School of Law Dean Paul McGreal said. “I think if you go to that type of a system, there needs to be some discussion about what happens in that third year.”

Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, has suggested moving the bar exam earlier, from the last Wednesday in July into June. Alternately, the Iowa Supreme Court is expected this summer to consider an Iowa State Bar Association proposal to allow students from the University of Iowa College of Law and Drake University Law School — the state’s only two law schools — to skip the bar exam altogether. The idea is similar to Wisconsin’s long-standing “in-state diploma privilege,” which allows admission of University of Wisconsin Law School and Marquette University Law School graduates without taking the bar exam.

Students and law school administrators in Arizona are giving the early bar program a tentative thumbs-up, and they expect to see more students take advantage of it next year.

“I do think the majority of 3Ls are ready to take the bar, especially if you give them the right preparation,” said Rob Williams, a professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. He helped create a special bar-exam prep course and slate of practice-oriented classes and externships to follow the February exam sitting. “There is a lot of enthusiasm and interest from our 2Ls about this, and more of them are putting themselves in a position to take the bar exam early.” Second-year students have more time to arrange their coursework to prepare for the early bar exam, he said.

To be eligible for the February bar, third-year students must complete all but 10 of their legal credits. Additionally, both Arizona State and the University of Arizona designed special postbar curricula to bridge the gap from the classroom into practice.

FAMILIES AND CHILDREN

To West, taking the bar early would eliminate the need to take out a loan to cover living expenses while he studies for the July exam. It also would move the 31-year-old former teacher into the job market sooner — he could be admitted to practice as early as May — and allow him to spend some of the summer with his family rather than hunkered down with bar prep materials. “For those of us with families and children, to be able to take control and finish early was a nice option,” West said. “It made my life much easier.”

Katherine LaFosse, a third-year law student at the University of Arizona, opted to take the Arizona exam in February so she could sit for the test in her native Texas in July. “I want to keep my options open in case my husband and I want to go back to Texas,” said LaFosse, who has already secured a yearlong clerkship with the Arizona Supreme Court and now is an intern in the legal department of defense contractor Raytheon Co. She realized after summering at a large firm that that life was not for her. The early bar makes less sense for students going to large firms, since they will have to wait until the fall to begin work anyway, she said.

But being licensed to practice as early as May makes sense for students who aspire to work in government, public interest jobs, smaller firms or to start their our businesses, Arizona State law dean Doug Sylvester said. Many of those employers won’t consider job candidates who aren’t already licensed. “We found that the people who wanted to do this were highly motivated,” he said of early bar-exam takers. “Some of them were nontraditional students, but mostly they were just looking to get certified and get out there.”

For Matt Randle, who with his wife is expecting a baby less than two months before he graduates, taking the exam in February was a no-brainer. “As a nontraditional student with mouths to feed at home and bills to pay, the opportunity to get licensed early and start working was too good to pass up,” the former U.S. Army medic turned law student at the University of Arizona said. “As a family, we decided that the advantages outweighed the drawbacks.”

And there were several drawbacks, students said. For one thing, they had only a few days to recover from the grueling exam before they were due back in class. (Many July test-takers plan a postbar vacation to decompress.)

Catherine Barnard, a third-year law student at Arizona State, had to forgo some campus activities in January and February because she was too busy studying for the bar exam. But getting a jump on the job market was worth it, she said, and she is already looking for a job with estate-planning firms. “I was so relieved just to get the bar exam done with,” Barnard said. “There is a nice sense of being done, and when I graduate, I can actually practice.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.