Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2009
Parting Thoughts
A Better Beginning
By John Gear

As a transplant attorney, still fairly new to Oregon, it is with some trepidation and thoughts of tilting at windmills that I write to propose fundamental changes to the state’s bar admission practices. However, after reading the December bar Bulletin, I find I must.

As Karen Garst’s "Breaking Barriers" farewell essay (December 2008) showed, awareness of the pointlessness of making attorneys retake the bar exam as a penalty for moving to Oregon is not limited to those who have to suffer the exercise. What is less appreciated is the full cost of this arbitrary and capricious requirement for attorneys, which even extends to the Multistate Professional Responsibility examination.

In the same issue of the magazine, "Hard Times for Access to Justice" provided another in an endless stream of articles and speeches by legal worthies bemoaning the tiny life raft of free or low-cost legal aid being swamped on the tsunami of demand. Meanwhile, each year, Oregon wastes a vast and valuable resource that could be helping many more low-income Oregonians get the legal help they need to deal with life’s struggles: transplant attorneys and new law grads who waste hundreds (and, often, thousands) of dollars and countless hours preparing for an examination that has no demonstrated relationship to competence, determination or likelihood of success as an attorney.

When I came to Oregon in January 2007, having passed the Michigan bar exam in 2004, rather than weighing the costs of a bar prep class against the risk of failing a multiple-guess exam filled with esoteric trivia and fine distinctions that no good attorney will try to remember without recourse to references, I should instead have had the opportunity to spend two or three months working pro bono, either in existing legal aid offices, or through a new statewide program set up through the Oregon State Bar to provide pro bono services to nonprofits, state and local governments, or to the bar itself.

Likewise, law students graduating from Oregon law schools should not face the wasted time and expense of preparing for the bar exam for admission in Oregon. Wisconsin law grads are admitted to practice in that state without a bar exam, and justice is not appreciably reduced in the Badger state. In fact, it is increased, because new attorney debt load is considerably reduced.

Oregon law grads should have the opportunity to enter practice through a pro bono service period, working under supervision for about the same amount of time (or perhaps a little longer) as transplant attorneys. Similar to the residencies for new physicians, these pro bono practice periods would offer a great benefit to both the new attorney and to the community as a whole, a benefit wholly absent from the bar exam experience.

And with the ubiquitous Internet, new grads and transplants should even be able to participate — and to help bring legal aid — to towns where there are no legal aid offices. After the pro bono service period, the head of the program or the supervising attorney would make (or withhold) a recommendation for admission into the Oregon State Bar. Any grads and transplants who do not obtain a recommendation for admission could have the option of seeking a second pro bono setting in which to prove themselves or seek admission through the bar exam route.

As a pro bono volunteer here in Salem, I see the overwhelming need for more pro bono attorneys. However, what I fear is that, instead of considering changes such as these, the bar will respond as it always has, calling for more of the same, the same that has proven insufficient so far. Meanwhile, access to justice falls further and further behind with each new administration, with each new restriction placed on legal service programs, and with each recession and funding cut.

I understand that change is hard and that organizations, like individuals, struggle with it. But what I am at a loss to understand is who benefits from making the bar exam the door to admission to practice, rather than a program of pro bono service. I do know who doesn’t benefit from this state of affairs though: the people of Oregon.

John Gear was admitted to practice in Oregon in September 2007. He earned his J.D. at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., in 2004. He holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Washington State University and a bachelor’s in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. He has worked as a Navy submarine officer, a policies and procedures writer, editor, and independent consultant, a research attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals, a regulatory affairs attorney with the Michigan Public Service Commission and in the Nuclear Safety Division at the Oregon Department of Energy.

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