New York State Bar Association Leads with Bar Exam Questions

Patricia E. Salkin*

On April 4, 2020 the New York State Bar Association once again delivered a resounding thumbs down to the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) as a measure of competency to practice law in New York.  Five years earlier, the Association’s Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar delivered a report that was overwhelmingly approved by the House expressing the sense of the profession that a move to the UBE was a bad idea. 

The NYSBA Committee on Legal Education and Admission to Bar (CLEAB), which had long studied the bar exam, hosted a session during the annual meeting on January 16, 2019 titled, “A Question of New York Law: Should It Be Taught in Law Schools and Tested on the Bar Exam?”  A preview to that discussion, “The Role of State Law in Legal Education and Attorney Licensing,” was published in the New York Law Journal the week prior.  In April 2019, the NYSBA Task Force on the Bar Exam was appointed by President Michael Miller, “to investigate and report on the experience and impact of New York’s adoption of the UBE.”  Then president-elect Hank Greenberg stated, “New York law has long been the gold standard in American jurisprudence. The bar exam should play an important role in ensuring that newly admitted lawyers appreciate the importance of New York law, and have an appropriate grounding in it.”

On March 5, 2020, following a series of statewide hearings on the bar exam, the Task Force, chaired by the Honorable Alan Scheinkman, Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, released its report and recommendations.  The report contains an accurate and detailed description of meetings, stakeholders and the decision-making process that ultimately led the New York Court of Appeals, under the leadership of former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, to abandon the New York Bar Exam (NYBE) in favor of the UBE; and the report starkly concludes that “…since the adoption of the UBE, the fundamental purpose of the bar examination has been lost.” (emphasis added)

Accompanied by analysis of findings and explanations to support their positions, the Task Force made the following recommendations to chart a path forward for the licensing of new attorneys in New York:

  • Eliminate the New York Law Exam and replace it with a rigorous exam on New York law as a prerequisite to admission to the New York bar.
  • Conduct an independent psychometric analysis of the grading and scaling of the UBE.
  • Allow those who do not wish to practice law in New York to take only the UBE and allowing those who only wish to practice in New York to take only the Multi-State Bar Examination section of the UBE and the rigorous New York test.
  • Consider a New York law Certification program that would allow people to forego the bar exam entirely. Under this program, ABA-accredited law schools inside and outside of New York would offer courses that include New York law-based content.
  • Consider an experiential learning pilot program, which would allow second and third-year law students to spend time counseling clients, working with practicing attorneys and learning other practical skills so that a portfolio of work is created and assessed every semester.

These recommendations are welcome, especially the last two items which get to the heart of what many thoughtful national experts have maintained are the more accurate measures of competency to practice law. While under normal circumstances, degree privilege plus programs that incentivize curricular choices (in this case more New York law) and require client-focused legal skills experiences are the better measures of basic competencies, the strange confluence of the timing of this report and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a fortuitous opportunity to test some of the recommendations in the report.

The fact that this Task Force was in existence and already working on bar exam issues led NYSBA President Hank Greenberg to ask the group to separately opine on the challenges surrounding the then-scheduled July 2020 uniform bar exam in New York. Greenberg has been a staunch advocate for the soon-to-be members of our profession noting, “Graduating law school students are experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress as their lives and potential livelihoods have been significantly disrupted, and we are focused on making sure that their concerns are being heard and responded to by policymakers.”  The Task Force recommended postponing the July 2020 bar exam until early September and if the exam is still impossible at that time, then to expand practice orders to enable new graduates to begin supervised practice while waiting for a bar exam to be administered. 

While the Court of Appeals under the leadership of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has accepted the State Bar recommendations, much more needs to be done to clarify the status of the developing procedures for licensing lawyers from the Class of 2020.  Another blog dedicated to pragmatic discourse on how to best license new lawyers who are getting ready to take their first bar exam during the COVID-19 pandemic is documenting the thoughtful and reasoned ways in which many state licensing jurisdictions are rethinking the value of the traditional bar exam limited to the unique challenges presented during the COVID crisis.  Law deans and faculty, law students and members of the profession, importantly including the leadership of the State Bar, are engaged in thoughtful dialogue on this topic with the Court of Appeals to arrive at a fair and just resolution for the Class of 2020. 

Some may think it unfortunate for the NYSBA Bar Exam Task Force to have issued its critique of the UBE at the same time that we are experiencing an unprecedented disruptor in the practice of law and in the administration of justice. However, this is precisely the time that New York can lead the country with piloting alternative ways to license lawyers with a reasoned roadmap prepared not under the pressure of the pandemic, but rather after a year-long focused study that supports the concept that there are different and equally effective, if not better, ways to assess candidate competency for admission to the bar in New York.

*Patricia Salkin is Provost of the Graduate and Professional Divisions of Touro College. She is a legal educator and a past co-chair of the NYSBA Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar.     

One Response

  1. Did you notice this section in Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.15, on April 9, 2020:

    Sections 6512 through 6516, and 6524 of the Education Law and Part 60 of Title 8 of the NYCRR, to the extent necessary to allow individuals, who graduated from registered or accredited medical programs located in New York State in 2020, to practice medicine in New York State, without the need to obtain a license and without civil or criminal penalty related to lack of licensure, provided that the practice of medicine by such graduates shall in all cases be supervised by a physician licensed and registered to practice medicine in the State of New York.

    https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-20215-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency

    I realize that this is temporary, although that seems as if it could mean quite a while. But my first reaction was, Really? Docs can practice without sitting for an exam, but not lawyers?

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