University of Denver

Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence

The fairness, efficacy, and validity of the bar exam all depend upon one thing: a clear definition of what minimum competence means when it comes to allowing lawyers to practice law. Only through a clear understanding of what minimum competence is can we treat test takers fairly, serve clients effectively, promote diversity, and improve access to justice. Yet, the bar exam continues to be administered to incoming lawyers without firm definitions around the minimum competence they should possess upon entering the profession. The Building a Better Bar project is contributing to that critical missing piece—a fair, evidence-based definition of minimum competence—which will improve the lawyer licensing process.

Director of Research
Professor of Law, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Special Projects Advisor
Director of Legal Education and the Legal Profession
Research Assistant
Legal Assistant

In partnership with: 


  • Develop and promote understanding of the minimum competence needed to practice law.
  • Align the bar exam with research-based concepts of minimum competence.

The legal profession lacks a clear, explicit understanding of the minimum competence needed to practice law and how it should be tested on the bar exam. And we cannot even say that the bar exam, as it exists now, is the right way to test for minimum competence until we know what we are testing for. Through the Building a Better Bar project, we will build upon the existing research through a series focus groups held across the country, and ultimately provide a richer, more diverse picture of the minimum competence needed to practice law.

IAALS is partnering with Professor Deborah Merritt at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law to develop a fair, evidence-based definition of minimum competence—based on the knowledge, skills, and judgment that new lawyers use to serve clients. Those insights will help reshape the bar exam into an evidence-based tool for licensing lawyers. The project will also inform efforts to focus legal education on the competencies that students need to pass the bar and serve clients effectively. AccessLex Institute has generously provided funding to make this project possible.

To gather these insights into minimum competence, we have held 50 focus groups in 18 locations around the country. Forty-one of the focus groups were held with new lawyers, and nine were held with supervisors of those lawyers. Some specialized groups of new lawyers were comprised of only women, people of color, rural lawyers, or solo practitioners. Including the perspectives of these groups assured that we gathered a fully representative view of new lawyers’ experiences.

We have completed data collection on the project and are preparing a full report, due to be published in Fall 2020.

Through these focus groups, we will be able to capture key information from a diversity of perspectives and provide concrete data on the definition of minimum competence that the profession can use to improve the bar exam and how lawyers are licensed.