ABA group embraces options for attorney licensing

The legal education arm of the American Bar Association has embraced alternative pathways for the licensing of new lawyers, moving away from a policy dating to more than a century ago.

A new ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar council policy encourages embracing options other than the traditional bar exam.

On May 17, the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar adopted a new policy statement encouraging innovation in bar licensing and embracing options other than the traditional bar exam.

The recommendation to change course, submitted by a task force formed last year to reevaluate a longstanding policy statement, effectively recognizes emerging state trends in how law school graduates are licensed.

Since 1921, the ABA had language that suggested that a bar exam be part of the licensing process, although the authority to license lawyers has traditionally rested with state jurisdictions.
Oregon and Washington recently opened alternative pathways for bar licensure, with other states now considering similar changes.

“In light of some state supreme courts passing or considering alternative pathways to licensure, the council felt it should consider whether the policy needed to be modified,” said Bill Adams, managing director for ABA accreditation and legal education.

The new policy statement encourages jurisdictions to “seriously consider the effect on license portability for new law graduates” and explore “pilot programs, and new competency assessment formats to enhance public access to justice advocates.”

It also, among other recommendations, urges state entities to pursue licensing options that “evaluate graduates across the range of skills and knowledge necessary for competent practice and that mitigate the disparate exclusion from the profession of racial and ethnic minorities and individuals of low socioeconomic status.”

The change represents a new policy statement or approach of the council and not for the ABA, the Board of Governors or the House of Delegates. The council serves as the ABA’s independent arm to accredit law schools and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for that function.

It currently accredits 197 schools taking new students.

At its May meeting, the council also decided to continue gathering information related to changes to specific standards and rules that could more efficiently allow for ABA-approval of fully online law schools.

But no timetable for a recommendation was made.