Utah Bar Admissions Working Group Proposes Novel Pathway Grounded in IAALS’ Research

October 26, 2023

"aerial view of city on sunny day with mountains in the background"The Utah Bar Admissions Working Group has issued its final report outlining recommendations for a novel approach to attorney licensure in Utah, and the proposed new pathway is currently before the Utah Supreme Court for consideration. This recommended pathway is built upon the empirically based definition of minimum competence developed through IAALS’ Building a Better Bar research

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah Supreme Court temporarily introduced an alternate route to bar licensure for those who would have otherwise taken the July 2020 bar exam, permitting graduates from ABA-accredited law schools with historic strong bar passage rates to become licensed without sitting for the bar exam. Subsequently, the Bar Admissions Working Group was formed to examine Utah’s licensing process, explore potential new pathways to licensure, and address diversity and access-to-justice concerns. 

Now, the working group’s proposal is a significant step forward to rethink how new lawyers enter the legal profession and how their skills and capabilities can be fairly and accurately assessed. The working group’s report covers both the rationales for and criticisms of the existing bar exam, including its limitations in measuring minimum competence, replicating authentic legal tasks and experiences, ensuring public safety, and addressing issues of income and racial bias.

The working group engaged in a multi-phase process including thorough review of Utah’s existing licensure process; conversations with key stakeholders like the National Conference of Bar Examiners, researchers, academics, and other jurisdictions who are exploring novel pathways to licensure; and a thorough examination of related issues such as impacts on diversity of the profession, impacts on access to justice, and impacts on the general public. The working group then formed a subcommittee to prepare a comprehensive proposal for a new pathway to licensure in Utah.  As laid out and expounded upon in substantial detail in the report, “the Working Group believes its proposal allows applicants to demonstrate minimum competence, protects the public, and immediately addresses valid criticisms of the current bar examination.”

The proposed novel pathway for applicants to the Utah State Bar consists of five requirements for admission, including: 

  • Graduating from an ABA-accredited law school
  • Passing all character and fitness evaluations
  • Fulfilling the requirements to demonstrate twelve building blocks of minimum competency (including specified coursework, a period of supervised practice, and an MPT-like written exam to be developed by a team of psychometricians)
  • Completing pro bono supervised practice hours
  • Participating in a final survey by the Utah State Bar

The proposal outlines the precise requirements for demonstration of each of the twelve building blocks of minimum competence. For example, in demonstrating “the ability to interact effectively with clients,” applicants must complete a combination of experiential coursework and supervised practice. In contrast, in demonstrating “an understanding of legal processes and sources of law,” applicants must pass the MPT-like exam and complete a specified series of doctrinal courses.

In addition to moving toward a fairer and more accurate assessment of minimum competence, this proposed pathway also underscores a commitment to increased access to justice through its pro bono supervised practice requirement. And, by requiring bar applicants to complete a survey that will allow them to track their impacts over time, there is a built-in evaluative component that will provide the state bar with valuable data on how this new approach is working.  

“The Working Group strongly advises the Utah Supreme Court to accept this evidence-backed proposal rather than wait for the NCBE to develop its new bar examination or continue to utilize the bar examination as the sole pathway to licensure,” the report concludes. IAALS is proud to see our Building a Better Bar research in action, and we applaud the Utah Bar Admissions Working Group for this bold step toward a more equitable and capable legal profession.

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