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Supreme Court gets input on changing bar exam rule

Published: Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 11:16 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — A proposal that would allow Iowa law school graduates to practice without taking the bar exam would help students pay off debt more quickly and encourage new lawyers to stay in the state, Drake University law school dean Ben Ullem said Wednesday.

Ullem was among more than 20 speakers who testified on both sides of the issue at a public hearing before the Iowa Supreme Court, which oversees rules of practice and procedures for the state courts. Opponents of the measure said eliminating the test could unleash unqualified attorneys onto the public and damage the reputation of the legal profession.

The “diploma privilege” proposal is being put forward by the Iowa State Bar Association, a trade association whose membership includes about 90 percent of the state’s lawyers. It would allow students graduating from the state’s two law schools, at Drake or the University of Iowa, to skip taking the exam if they plan to work in Iowa.

Under the proposal, law students must complete a specified number of credits from a list of courses the Supreme Court would help develop. Students still must submit letters of good moral character and undergo character and fitness reviews before they can practice. Students from other schools who wanted to take a bar exam to qualify to practice in Iowa and other states would take the Uniform Bar Exam, a test accepted in 14 states.

The committee said the goal is to help new lawyers find jobs sooner to begin paying off their law school debt, which typically exceeds $100,000.

Ullem said under the proposal students could begin work 4 ˝ months sooner. The difference could mean tens of thousands of dollars difference to new graduates, he said. Ullem and other supporters said the proposal also would encourage lawyers to stay in Iowa and practice, especially in rural areas where they say there’s a shortage of attorneys.

Others criticized the bar exam as outdated and not a good measure of the skills it takes to be a good lawyer.

“The bar exam as it’s presently constituted is not a good predictor of who’s going to be a good successful lawyer,” said Allan Vestal, a Drake University law professor.

Wisconsin is the only state that currently allows law school graduates to practice without taking a state bar exam.

Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge James Morrison told the court it has worked well for 75 years.

“You’d have a very hard time finding any difference between the quality of lawyers and the quality of people in the great state of Iowa and the sister state to the north. It has worked just fine for us,” he said.

Advocates for keeping the bar exam point to statistics showing that about five students who graduate from law school each year in Iowa fail to pass the test.

“We will be admitting some students who would never have managed to pass the bar ... and probably should not be admitted,” said Marianne Culhane, dean of the law school at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She said such a step would harm reputation of the legal profession in the eye of the public.

The hearing followed a 90-day comment period which generated 152 written comments, Chief Justice Mark Cady said. He said a decision will be issued as quickly as possible.

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