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Does Utah Still Need A Bar Exam? Changes To The Test During COVID Prompt Its Reevaluation

A photo of a judge gavel, a scales of justice, and law books on a desk.
The bar exam has been criticized for not accurately measuring some important skills law school graduates need to practice, such as communicating with clients and managing money.

For three intense years, law students like Chase Wilde can’t escape the thought that the bar exam is waiting for them once they finish.

He said the test maintains a powerful presence over students, always there in the back of their minds and often dictating which classes they take.

“As fascinating as criminal law is, I don't ever see myself practicing in that area,” Wilde said. “But it's a bar exam topic. And so you take criminal procedure courses so that you can do well on the exam.”

But in 2020, the pandemic changed how Utah law graduates were admitted to the bar — Utah’s Supreme Court allowed Wilde and other graduates to practice without taking the exam, a concept known as diploma privilege. They just needed to complete law school and work a certain number of hours under a licensed attorney.

It was a brief reprieve for students then, but one that has since closed. The exams that followed in February and July 2021 were done remotely, which was also new in Utah.

The changes have opened up longstanding questions about the test and how well it measures a graduates’ competency. Now, groups of legal experts in Utah and around the country are looking at alternatives.

“There is a sense in the legal community that this is the way that it's always been done and therefore it's the way that it should be done,” said Louisa Heiny, an associate dean and professor at the University of Utah law school. “These scholars and these studies are starting to significantly challenge that notion.”

Heiny is part of a task force looking at potential changes to the state bar. The effort mirrors a similar questioning of other high-stakes tests — like the SAT and other standardized tests K-12 students take — as educators look for better ways to evaluate student knowledge and performance, without imposing unnecessary barriers that end up serving those with more privilege.

“When we think about a student who fails the [bar] exam, sometimes we're talking about students who lack substantive knowledge,” she said, “but oftentimes we're talking about students who lack something else, whether it’s they have a learning disability [or] they don't have the time or the money to fully prepare.”

Heiny said the bar does a good job of forcing students to review certain areas of law, but it fails to test many of the skills attorneys actually use in their day-to-day work — like the ability to communicate with clients, manage money and make oral arguments.

Wilde said because of his opportunity to use diploma privilege and the accompanying supervised work, he felt was better prepared for work as a lawyer than if he had spent that time studying for the exam.

“I got to work with a client one-on-one, which is something you just dream about in law school when you're sitting in class all day,” he said. “You’re actually meeting with someone who has real life issues and using what you've learned to help them solve them and better their lives.”

Wilde ultimately took the bar in another state, which allows him to expand where he can practice. He said one of the main reasons he decided to was for the experience and to prove to himself and others that he could get through it. Still, that hasn’t changed how he feels about its necessity.

“Let's just say at the end of the day, if I needed an attorney and I had the choice between a recent grad that just barely took and passed the bar exam or a recent grad who had gone through diploma privilege and gotten all their hours in under a supervised attorney, I would much rather take that latter,” he said.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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