Oregon’s Groundbreaking Approach to Legal Licensure Paves Way for Other States

April 18, 2024

In November, Oregon made history by becoming the first U.S. state to implement a non-exam, performance-based pathway to legal licensure through a program called Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination (SSPE), which is available to graduates across the state. Starting next month, aspiring lawyers will have the opportunity to obtain a legal license after successful completion of a period of practice under an approved supervisor and evaluation by the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners.

The Oregon Alternatives to the Exam (ATE) Task Force, responsible for spearheading this groundbreaking initiative, will be given IAALS’ Rebuilding Justice Award next week. Joanna Perini-Abbott, Executive Director of the Lewis & Clark Advocacy Center, will accept the award on behalf of the task force. She will be joined by task force members Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Meagan Flynn and Oregon State Bar CEO Helen Hierschbiel for a fireside chat discussing new pathways for lawyer licensure.

The SPPE is a demanding and comprehensive licensure process, requiring 675 hours of supervised work—roughly equivalent to the time typically spent preparing for the bar exam. But instead of just memorizing for an exam, aspiring lawyers gain actual experience in the field. Participants must produce at least eight pieces of written legal work, conduct two intake interviews, and engage in two negotiation sessions, among other requirements. This portfolio of legal work will be evaluated by the Oregon Bar of Board Examiners to assess whether they have satisfied the requirements for minimum competence.

Oregon’s trailblazing approach draws from IAALS’ Building a Better Bar research, which established the first-ever empirically grounded definition of minimum competence to practice law. The Building a Better Bar findings unequivocally demonstrate that the current bar exam is not aligned with the elements of minimum competence, and that many other aspects of the exam—over-emphasis on memorization, being closed-book, unrealistic time constraints—are counterproductive to assessing whether a person is minimally competent to practice law. As IAALS' director of research and lead on legal education and licensure work Logan Cornett noted in a recent interview with the Washington Post, “Oregon’s approach and other states that are looking at implementing other similar non-exam pathways to license are closer to what the realities of the practice are.” 

Adrian Smith, chair of the Oregon Bar of Board Examiners, also spoke to the Post. “This does not lower the bar. This is a rigorous program that tests competence in real time, in a real-life, meaningful way,” he said. “The bar exam is not the only way to test an individual’s competence. Reviewing actual documents that they have created under supervision while practicing as a lawyer is an excellent way to assess their competence as a lawyer.” Legal academics across the country have praised Oregon’s decision, and other states such as Washington and Minnesota have recently taken similar steps. 

As the legal landscape continues to evolve, Oregon’s innovative approach sets a precedent for bold reform to address issues that have historically plagued legal licensure. Their initiative in establishing a new non-exam, practice-based licensure process is a landmark success. By exploring and experimenting with alternative pathways to licensure—and collecting data to understand their impacts—states across the country can develop rigorous, equitable, and effective legal licensure ecosystems that produce lawyers who are thoroughly equipped to serve clients.

Dive Deeper