Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2011
Parting Thoughts
Rethinking Bar Admissions
By John Gear

Just in time for Christmas, a new website, http://orprobonostudent.org Jointly created by the Oregon State Bar Pro Bono Committee, Lewis & Clark Law School, the University of Oregon School of Law, and Willamette University College of Law, to:

…help Oregon attorneys connect with students from the state’s three law schools to help with pro bono work. Attorneys receive capable assistance that allows the attorneys to offer more complex legal services for free. Law students receive an opportunity to gain real-world experience while helping the underprivileged obtain desperately needed legal services. Together, attorneys and law students are working to pass on the commitment to pro bono and to ensure that no one in Oregon lacks a voice in the legal system.

Great idea! But wait is the scarcity of pro bono services in Oregon because Oregon lawyers don’t know that eager law students are available through the law schools?

No, the problem is that no matter how much time third-year law students and graduates invest in learning the craft and practice of lawyering, no matter how good they are at helping people resolve legal problems, the title “attorney at law” requires applicants to pass an arbitrarily grueling but otherwise meaningless quiz.

Same for attorneys who relocate to Oregon from other states. Our recent ever-so-grudging expansion of reciprocity admissions only helped attorneys with at least five years in practice, carefully cutting out those young attorneys who have not set roots elsewhere and are most likely to join us here.

How sad that our admissions process undermines the great idea behind orprobonostudent.org. Since the need is indeed “desperate” (visit to any legal aid office if you doubt this), then are we not morally bound to offer more than a “dot-org” website? Or is “desperate” just one of those words we toss around for emphasis?

There is a quote by writer John Guenther from Inside USA engraved on a steppingstone on the north side of the Capitol in Salem, in direct view of the Golden Pioneer who stands atop the dome. Guenther wrote that no other state in the union was more determined to go its own way with less regard for the choices of its neighbors than Oregon. How odd then, in a state that can pioneer bottle bills and Death with Dignity laws, we can’t seem to admit that the bar exam as the sole route to admission to practice is simply too wasteful, too expensive, and provides far too little benefit to the people of Oregon the people who are, after all, supposed to be foremost in our minds when we think of how to self-regulate our profession.

The bar exam is the classic barrier to entry that is similar to all the others that nascent professions set up in the last century. It doesn’t exist because it has merit; rather its minimal merit is that it exists and is familiar. What is, at bottom, simply the final hazing ritual of the legal education is seen as sacrosanct, rather than being recognized as a serious obstacle to a more just society.

And yet at the same time, read any legal blog or attend any gathering of experienced lawyers and, usually sooner than later, you will note a hearty chorus of complaint that law schools do a crappy job preparing students for practice. Further, every official bar organ regularly runs articles decrying the unavailability of legal services to the poor and exhorting attorneys to greater sacrifices in this area. Apparently our vaunted analytical skills and tendencies fail us here, for we observe both the failures to give new lawyers practical skills and the same “desperate” state of pro bono year after year after year, but we respond with what amounts to a defeated shrug.

Would not a few months of supervised pro bono experience be a better guide to a J.D.’s readiness to practice law that her results on the bar exam? Would not an attorney with experience elsewhere learn more about Oregon practice from helping Oregonians than in relearning the Rule Against Perpetuities? Of course, some new graduates might prefer the bar exam; fine. Let applicants make that choice. But first we must give them one.

It is time — past time — for the leadership of the bar to work with the leaders of Oregon’s law schools to formulate and present to the bar and the Oregon Supreme Court a solid proposal for letting all Oregon bar applicants choose between the bar exam route or one involving supervised pro bono practice. Let’s take a novel approach to the pro bono shortage.


The author is a private practice attorney in Salem and recipient of the 2009 Lawyer of the Year award by the Marion-Polk Volunteer Lawyers Project.

© 2011 John Gear

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