Oregon Becomes Third State to Approve Alternative to the Bar Exam

bar exam alternative, Chairs and desks in an exam hall

Earlier this month, the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously approved an alternative to the bar exam for students hoping to practice law in the state.

Beginning in May 2024, graduates from an ABA-accredited law school can complete a Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination (SPPE) instead of the traditional bar exam. SPPE requires graduates to complete 675 hours of work under the supervision of a licensed Oregon attorney and compile a portfolio of their work, which will be evaluated by the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners.

Oregon is the first state to implement a program like SPPE, Brian Gallini, Dean of Willamette University’s College of Law, told KGW News in Portland, Oregon. Gallini helped develop the program.

Proponents say the SPPE will better test aspiring lawyers on the work actually done in legal practice while addressing some of the inequities that many have associated with the traditional bar exam.

Oregon’s move to an ‘alternative pathway’

Discussions on moving Oregon to an alternative method of attorney licensure have been happening for several years but intensified during the pandemic, when the state enacted emergency diploma privilege, allowing graduates who met certain criteria to be admitted to the Oregon State Bar without taking the bar exam.

The Oregon Supreme Court approved “in concept” the SPPE and a second curriculum-based model, called the Oregon Experiential Portfolio Pathway (OEPE), in 2022.

In developing the SPPE and the OEPE, Oregon’s Licensure Pathways Development Committee (LPDC) said it aims “to ensure that the new examinations protect legal consumers by adequately measuring applicants’ competence to practice law while not placing unnecessary or inequitable barriers between an examinee and licensure.”

The LPDC concluded that the 675 hours, when combined with the Portfolio requirements, provides sufficient time to establish a candidate’s minimum competence without becoming an obstacle to entry.

Importantly, Inside Higher Ed notes that the SPPE will “require participants to get paid for their 675 hours of work,” addressing criticism that the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE)—a standardized bar exam created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and currently used in most states including Illinois—favors students who have the resources to afford prep courses and the pricey exam, as well as the flexibility to study full-time for multiple months instead of working.

Leaders in the state are also hoping to use SPPE as a tool to recruit attorneys to the state, which is facing a severe shortage of public defenders.

“For those graduates who may be thinking about a practice in the West Coast, or thinking about the financial commitment of the bar exam, or leveraging their postgraduate experience for the benefit of employment, this will truly be the nation’s only opportunity to do that,” Gallini told Inside Higher Ed.

Attorneys who pursue SPPE are only licensed to practice in Oregon, unlike the UBE, which provides examinees the option of transferring scores to seek admission in other jurisdictions.

Other alternatives to the bar exam

Wisconsin and New Hampshire are currently the only two other states with permanent alternatives to the bar exam, though several states are exploring alternatives.

Graduates of Wisconsin law schools are eligible to practice in the state through diploma privilege if they meet certain academic and character and fitness requirements.

Students in the University of New Hampshire School of Law’s Daniel Webster Scholar honors program can earn their law license by completing specialized coursework and completing an assessment including exams, interviews, and simulations.

On November 16, the State Bar of California’s Board of Trustees voted to pilot a Portfolio Bar Examination, a supervised practice pathway similar to Oregon’s SPPE. The California Supreme Court would need to approve the pilot before it moves forward.

Several other states also have alternatives to the bar exam under review including Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington.

The programs developed in these states generally have one or more of the following requirements for aspiring attorneys:

  • Pre-graduation coursework and clinical experience
  • Post-graduation supervised working hours
  • Other examinations developed by individual jurisdictions rather than the NCBE
  • A portfolio of legal work

As noted previously, Oregon is also considering a second alternative to the bar exam called the OEPE. Rather than the supervised practice required in the SPPE, the OEPE licensure pathway would offer students at Oregon’s law schools the opportunity to take a “rigorous experiential curriculum in their second and third years of law school” and submit a portfolio of work to the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners.

Many have voiced concerns about alternatives to the traditional bar including the additional administrative burden of implementing new processes, a lack of available supervising lawyers, and if the process would be as rigorous as taking the bar exam, legal consultant Jordan Furlong said in his blog.

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