The Arizona Supreme Court gave the green light December 10 to an experimental proposal allowing third-year law students to take the bar exam before they graduate, a move law school officials hope will give students a leg up in the job market. 

Under the revised rule, 3Ls who meet eligibility requirements can take the bar exam offered in February, several months before graduation. The proposal was approved as a temporary pilot project from January 2013 until the end of December 2015. Law school officials and other stakeholders will have to file a report with the court by November 1, 2015.

“It addresses several criticisms of legal education: it’s too expensive, the third-year students are unfocused and students have to wait so long after graduation until they can take the bar and be ready to practice,” said University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law associate dean Sally Rider. “It addresses all those concerns.”

Arizona is now the only state to allow law students to take the bar exam in the middle of their final year of law school. Other states experimented with the idea in the past but went back to the old system after finding that it proved too distracting for students, as the state Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Advisory Committee noted in its opposition to the proposal earlier this year.

But Judy Stinson, associate dean for academic affairs at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the proposal included provisions aimed at addressing those concerns. The revised rule requires students to have no more than eight semester hours left to finish after the exam and restricts their course load leading up to the exam.

“It’s a nice step by the Supreme Court to allow us to really help our students,” Stinson said. She noted that a number of public employers and small firms in the state won’t interview applicants until they’re licensed to practice, so the revised rule means students won’t have to wait in limbo before applying for those jobs. The status quo “really does delay the amount of time before they start offsetting the cost of their education,” she said.

After they take the exam, Rider said law schools can help students design a curriculum aimed at helping them prepare for the workplace, from on-the-ground training to classes on serving clients’ needs and the economics of practicing law. She added that another plus is that students will have greater flexibility to take a bar exam in another state the summer after they graduate.

“Students have supported it, they’re very excited,” Rider said. At least 45 current students at the University of Arizona, or a third of the 2L class, had expressed interest in taking advantage of the new system, she said.

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