Washington Becomes Latest State to Allow Alternatives to the Bar Exam

Attentive Indian Student Listening to Tutor Last month, Washington became the latest state to allow those seeking a law license in the state to pursue alternatives to the traditional uniform bar exam (UBE).

Washington’s new pathway will include experiential learning alternatives for law-school graduates, law-school students, and Admission and Practice Rule (APR) 6 law clerks (who are enrolled in a non-law school course of study).

In addition, the NextGen bar exam will be adopted in place of the UBE beginning with the July 2026 administration. The UBE will be phased out over two years starting with the July 2026 exam.

Finally, the Court ordered a reduction in the minimum passing score for the UBE retroactively from July 2020 through the implementation of the NextGen bar exam.

The new admissions rules are intended to protect the public and improve trust in the profession by testing “real-world practice and skills,” reducing barriers to entry in the legal profession, and addressing the shortage of lawyers in the state, according to a press release.

Oregon, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire have also adopted alternatives to the UBE for licensing lawyers.

Uncovering challenges with the UBE

After COVID-19 forced modifications to the UBE, then-Chief Justice Debra Stephens established the Washington Bar Licensure Task Force to explore the effectiveness of the UBE and related attorney competency requirements and to evaluate alternative methods of attorney licensure.

In a proposal based on its three-year study, the Task Force, which was made up of lawyers in private and public practice, academics, and researchers, concluded two things: (i) the UBE “blocks marginalized groups” from entering legal practice and (ii) it is “at best minimally effective” for ensuring lawyer competency.

In all, the Task Force made seven recommendations for changes to Washington’s current pathways of attorney licensure and four changes to the character and fitness assessment, which the Court plans to address in the future.

The new path forward

Based on the Task Force’s recommendations, the Washington Supreme Court ordered the following:

  • Adoption of the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ NextGen bar exam beginning in July 2026. The Court said that the NextGen exam “addresses many of the identified flaws in the current bar exam by focusing on real-world skills and practice.” Washington will continue to accept UBE scores for those seeking to transfer their admission.
  • The creation of experiential-learning alternatives to the UBE for law-school graduates, law-school students, and APR 6 law clerks (who are enrolled in a non-law school course of study). These pathways will include things like an apprenticeship with a qualified attorney, standardized coursework, qualifying skills credits, work as a licensed legal intern, and the submission of a portfolio of work.
  • The “investigation and adoption of assessments and programs” that help ensure lawyer competency throughout their careers.

In addition, the Court ordered that the experience requirement for out-of-state attorneys to be eligible for licensing in Washington be reduced from three years to one year and a reduction in the minimum passing score of the bar exam from 270 to 266, which was the score adopted during the pandemic.

“With these alternative pathways, we recognize that there are multiple ways to ensure a competent, licensed body of new attorneys who are so desperately needed around the state,” said Washington Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, who co-chaired the Task Force.

The Court is partnering with the Washington State Bar Association on an implementation timeline.

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The NextGen Bar Exam Will Be Available in 2026: How Are States Preparing?

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