Oregonians may soon have some options when it comes to becoming licensed attorneys in the state, following a recent decision by the state Supreme Court.

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The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously supported the concept of two alternatives in addition to the Uniform Bar Exam — currently, the sole pathway to attorney licensure for people in the state. Those alternatives are: An experiential learning pathway for students, and a postgraduate supervised practice pathway.

But the state court’s decision is just a preliminary step. It could take much of this year or longer before those alternatives are approved and implemented.

In the meantime, Oregon’s three law schools are starting to think about how the changes could affect them and their students.

A file photo of the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore. The court has unanimously supported efforts to develop alternative pathways for attorney licensure

A file photo of the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore. The court has unanimously supported efforts to develop alternative pathways for attorney licensure

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Discussions about alternatives to the bar exam began in 2020, following the Oregon Supreme Court’s granting of a temporary “diploma privilege” — meaning eligible law students could become licensed lawyers without taking the bar exam because of the pandemic.

After that decision, Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters requested that the state Board of Bar Examiners look into alternatives to the exam for the future.

The board created a task force, which spent a year researching alternatives to present to the state Supreme Court.

Brian Gallini, dean of Willamette University’s College of Law, was on that task force.

“That work is now over, and now we will move to a new phase which is getting into the weeds, the details, thinking about all of the many logistics … of how this might play out,” Gallini said.

Bridging the gap

The pathway to becoming an attorney varies from state to state. In Oregon, students must take and pass the bar exam with a score of at least 270. Gallini said the required passing scores also vary from state to state.

Becoming a licensed attorney in Oregon also requires graduating from an accredited law school, passing a “character and fitness review” and passing a multi-state exam. The two proposed alternatives to the bar exam would still require those additional steps.

Gallini said the conversation around alternatives to Oregon’s exam grew in part from the idea that the skills to pass a multiple-choice test don’t always match up with what employers are looking for.

“We develop a curriculum that’s responsive to that licensure scheme in some ways,” Gallini said. “We want to prepare our students, of course, to practice, but we want to make sure that they pass the exam, and it’s super important to know — those two things are not always aligned.”

The proposed pathways are a way to “bridge the gap,” Gallini said.

A sign marks the entrance to Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. California students used to bolster the student body at the school.

A sign marks the entrance to Willamette University in Salem, Ore., in this 2019 file photo. Faculty and administrators at Willamette's law school are watching as discussions advance around alternative paths to becoming a licensed Oregon lawyer.

Rob Manning / OPB

The Oregon Experiential Pathway could alter law school curricula around the state — putting emphasis on clinical or simulation-based work.

The supervised practice pathway, which would be for people already out of law school, would resemble an apprenticeship, with applicants doing 1,000 to 1,500 hours of supervised legal practice to become licensed, as it’s currently proposed.

Gallini said some people have questioned whether these alternatives would “lower the bar” to becoming an attorney in Oregon. He said it would not, and argued the experiential pathway, in particular, could be more work for students compared to the traditional bar exam.

“I think that there’s more rigor associated with the Oregon Experiential Pathway. I also think it’s more closely aligned to the skills that are empirically measurable by what employers and the public expect,” Gallini said.

Gallini envisions the supervised practice pathway as a way for attorneys in other states to practice law in Oregon to do that without taking the bar exam. That could help address understaffing in Oregon’s public defense system, he said.

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Becky Ivanoff, assistant dean for career planning and professional development at the University of Oregon’s School of Law, was on the task force with Gallini.

She said the supervised practice pathway could also help address unmet needs for legal services in rural parts of Oregon.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to potentially tap into some of those resources with supervising attorneys out in more rural areas to get new grads introduced to practice in that area,” Ivanoff said. “And so I think that there’s a lot of exciting opportunities for what it could mean for the state.”

Gallini noted that the Oregon Bar Exam would still remain an option for students if those alternatives routes are implemented.

“What we’re trying to do is provide this three-legged, holistic licensure stool, where notably and importantly, there was no effort to eliminate the Bar,” Gallini said.

Changing the game for law students

The biggest change to law students and schools in Oregon would be the potential implementation of the Oregon Experiential Pathway.

Currently, Oregon law students must graduate law school with six credits of experiential learning. They can fulfill those credits by taking a clinic, externship or simulation learning class.

Gallini said the experiential pathway’s initial proposal requires 15 experiential credits. Students would also need to do a capstone project, according to the proposal.

Marcilynn Burke, dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Law, said changes to the curriculum are still very up in the air. She said any changes would depend on what the final proposal may look like, and if it’s eventually approved by the Oregon Supreme Court.

“A lot of that detail we don’t have a sense of now,” Burke said.

Burke said there have been discussions on how Oregon’s three law schools — UO, Willamette and Lewis & Clark College — could work together.

“Maybe our students might take classes across law schools,” she said. “There’s just so many different possibilities at this point.”

Jennifer Johnson, dean of Lewis & Clark Law School, also said it’s unclear how much her school’s curriculum would change at this point in the process.

If the proposals are approved, Johnson said, faculty members across the three schools will be heavily involved in discussions of how curriculum could change.

“That’s what the faculty needs to figure out — What does that look like?” she said.

Moving forward and addressing equity

Now that the Oregon Supreme Court’s shown support for the bar exam alternatives, as concepts, the next step is fleshing them out.

According to Kateri Walsh, the Oregon State Bar’s communications director, the Board of Bar Examiners will appoint a new developmental committee to establish specific details.

Walsh said a large part of that next step will involve getting input from the public.

The Oregon Supreme Court has not assigned a deadline for that new committee’s work, but Walsh said the State Bar anticipates the work will extend “well into this year.”

The University of Oregon is home to one of three Oregon law schools. They're all following proposed alternative paths to becoming a lawyer in the state.

The University of Oregon is home to one of three Oregon law schools. They're all following proposed alternative paths to becoming a lawyer in the state.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

“To be successful, the bar, the court — and ultimately the public — will need to know that the pathway to become a lawyer in Oregon is open and equitable, while also maintaining rigorous standards of education, ethics and competency,” Walsh said.

Discussions of equity were a big part of the initial task force’s work in drafting the alternative proposals, and Burke with UO said it’s something that needs to stay front-of-mind moving forward.

“We talk about how this could attract more talent to Oregon and have more talented people want to stay in Oregon and how it could be a more diverse group of people,” Burke said. “I think what’s important is to recognize that opening multiple pathways does not equal diversifying the profession. We have to be very conscious and intentional to make sure that we don’t design a system that replicates existing barriers to practice.”

“Through all of this, we’ve got to keep equity and inclusion in mind.”

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