The Uniform Bar Exam continues its march across the United States, with 33 jurisdictions now using or soon to adopt the standard test for attorney admissions.
The Supreme Courts of Illinois and Rhode Island this month formally adopted the uniform exam, and the Tennessee Supreme Court did so in April. Maryland and North Carolina each adopted the exam in November, and Texas could be next. A court-appointed task force in May recommended that the Lone Star state begin using the uniform exam while a similar committee in Ohio is expected to release its own recommendation next month.
“It probably did reach a critical mass where a lot of jurisdictions decided, ‘Hey, this is good for law students, it’s good for law schools, it’s good for consumers of legal services, and it promotes lawyer mobility,” said Judith Gundersen, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which creates the three components of the uniform bar exam and has advocated for its use nationally. “There just haven’t been problems, really, implementing it in states that have adopted it. I think that’s what’s giving other states that are coming on board some degree of comfort.”
The Uniform Bar Exam has transformed over the past eight years from an idea to a major force changing the way lawyers get admitted to practice. Attorneys who take the test in a uniform bar exam jurisdiction may transfer that score to any other state that also uses the standard test, meaning they don’t have to retake the bar as long as they meet the incoming jurisdiction’s cut scores. (Uniform bar jurisdictions each establish their own cut score, but 80 percent fall between 260 and 270 on a 400-point scale, according to Gundersen. Illinois has set a 266 cut score.)
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The ability of lawyers to move seamlessly across state lines was a major selling point to the deans of Illinois’ nine law schools, who worked closely with the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar to study the idea, according to Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean Michael Kaufman.
“The deans were very convinced that this would improve the ability of graduates of [a] Illinois law school to become members of the bar and find gainful employment, not just in Illinois but elsewhere,” Kaufman said. “Any time that the profession is more open and welcoming to qualified lawyers and less prone to closing the door, that’s a good thing.”
Students have been enthusiastic about the change—announced June 8 by the Illinois Supreme Court—though some recent graduates are disappointed that the uniform test won’t come online until July 2019, Kaufman said.
Illinois is the fifth-largest bar exam jurisdiction in the country and its adoption of the uniform exam could prompt other Midwest jurisdictions to follow suit, Gundersen said. New York’s decision to go with the standard test in 2015 had a ripple effect in the Northeast, with New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont quickly coming on board. New York is the single-largest bar exam jurisdiction, with more than 14,000 taking its test in 2017.
Illinois neighbor Missouri was the first to adopt the Uniform Bar Exam in 2010 and Iowa did so in 2015. But Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin, each of which abut Illinois, have not gone to the uniform exam. (Wisconsin is unique in that its diploma privilege allows graduates of the state’s two law schools to practice there without sitting for the bar exam.)
“With a majority of jurisdictions in the United States now administering the Uniform Bar Exam, the time seemed right to adapt to a legal landscape that demands more flexibility and recognizes multijurisdictional practice,” said Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier in an announcement of the change.
But Uniform Bar Exam holdouts remain, namely California and Florida, which respectively see the second- and third-largest numbers of bar takers each year. Neither state appears poised to adopt the test in the near future.
The Texas task force cited the benefits to new lawyers in its recommendation that the state adopt the uniform exam.
“The UBE allows lawyers to move between states without spending the time and money needed to take multiple bar exams,” the task force report reads. “This is advantageous for new law school graduates who wish to look for employment in more than one state—including both Texans who wish to move to other states, and those from other states who wish to practice law here.”
The Texas Supreme Court is not expected to reach a decision on the uniform bar exam until its current term wraps up in August.
It’s not yet clear where Ohio’s task force will land on the uniform exam, but two-thirds of its members are law school professors and administrators, and the standard exam has generally been popular with legal educators.
Moving to the uniform exam in Illinois will require only a slight modification to the existing exam. Illinois already uses the 200 multiple-choice question Multistate Bar Examination and the Multistate Essay Examination, which consists of six questions. Next year, it will do away with three Illinois-law essay questions and instead use the Multistate Performance Test, in which exam takers complete two legal writing assignments. The performance test places more emphasis on legal analysis and reasoning abilities than the current state essays, Kaufman said.
But Kaufman said Illinois should closely monitor the uniform exam to ensure it actually improves lawyers’ access and that the quality of the test remains high.
“We all believe [the uniform exam] needs to be monitored, and we need some data to see what the effect of the [exam] will actually be on patterns of law students, lawyers, and the actual practice of law,” he said. “Are there any unintended consequences? We don’t really know that yet, even from the other states. It’s a pretty significant change.”