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More questions than answers; the Iowa Bar Exam Diploma Privilege

Below is a copy of the comment I submitted during the public comment period for the proposed amendments to rules for licensing Iowa Lawyers, i.e. the proposed diploma privilege.

As one of the small percent of attorneys who failed my first attempt at the bar exam, I wanted to provide some feedback on the proposed change to adopt a diploma privilege for graduates of Drake and The University of Iowa law schools.

Above all, I am glad that I passed the bar, have a license to practice, and don't have to be directly impacted by this change.

I may, however, be indirectly affected, but only time will tell.  I have a solo law practice.  What will my clients perceive if new law students don’t have to pass the bar exam?  Will clients believe that lawyers should charge less per hour if they haven't passed the highly coveted bar exam?  As someone who is self-employed with her own shingle, billable time and collecting fees are an incredible burden.  I believe clients pay attorneys a high hourly rate because of the rigorousness of our training. 

The bar exam may be arbitrary, but it does provide secondary training in the form of stress management, endurance, the ability to focus, the necessity of having a support system, and much more.  It is a completely different animal than taking a final exam for law school.

I compared the bar exam preparation like doing my 1L year of law school all over again.  Confidence shattering from poor results of sample test questions, learning how to study and answer questions in a completely new way, and questioning whether I should be doing it at all. 

I tell myself, that if I was finishing law school and met the qualifications for the diploma privilege, I would apply and attempt the exam anyway.  I say that now, but I've already passed so it’s probably not a very persuasive statement.  But has anyone stopped to ask the current law students what they think?

The bottom line for me is the recommendation on the diploma privilege is under researched and too narrow in its conclusion.

Like a good brief, both sides need to be addressed.  The Blue Ribbon Committee report does not address what will go unchanged with the implementation of the diploma privilege.  Here are a few things I came up with.

1. There are still very few jobs available in the legal field following the recession.

2. The cost of 3 years of law school is still the biggest burden - how about looking into 2.5 years and taking the bar exam during what would have been the last semester.

3. Law school grads are often hired contingent on passing the bar UNLESS they apply for a state job that requires passing the bar - ask the state to implement the same contingency.

4. The legal jobs that existed 10 years ago are not coming back and law students, other than the top 15% of the class, are not going to have a job offer starting their 3L year.  

5.  The waiting period for the results of the exam doesn't have to be 3 months - the committees who grade the essays can be scheduled to start grading the day the exam is over, like it was 30 years ago.  I don't know about the MBE (scantrons) but they are run through a machine for grading - that may be able to be expedited.  I understand there are limitations to shortening the results window, but whether it can be done should be considered.

6.  What if employers still required passing the bar to be hired - if someone from out of state has to take it, wouldn't respected law firms want all new associates to come in on the same playing field?

Although 90% of test takers pass on the first try, it isn't because the exam isn't difficult.  The exam doesn't test minimal competency, if it did, a person wouldn't need to take the bar prep classes.  

On my first attempt, I got behind on the BarBri class schedule because I had back surgery the week after graduation.  I got so far behind on the course that I decided to forego the class structure, and instead, I focused on my outlines from the BarBri lectures, took some practice questions and knew my outlines forward and backward.  

What I learned from my first bar exam experience is that knowing the law on the bar exam isn't enough; the exam questions are designed to make all the answers seem plausible.  If you don't have the prep class curriculum or have taken all the sample tests that point out this technique, you can't pass.

Point being - the exam is flawed, but is there a way to fix it?  The standardized testing of black letter law is incredibly helpful given law school final exams are more focused on analysis and there usually isn't a completely correct answer.

If the point of the diploma privilege is to get graduates into practice sooner, it is a great recommendation, but the jobs just aren't there to get.  I was warned about the poor legal job market from a professor who wrote me a recommendation letter for my law school application. I reminded myself of his warning all through law school and often lamented that life was going to be harder after law school than during law school.  Students are getting keen to the idea that attorney jobs are incredibly difficult to come by and law school applications are dropping, I think as much as 30%.

I applaud the money that will be saved if a student doesn't have to take the exam - that is perhaps the biggest advantage.

The proposed changes to Iowa’s law school curriculum can be done regardless of whether someone has to take the exam. I think there are great recommendations put forward by the Blue Ribbon Committee on improvements by the law schools to test Iowa law.

I guess, it just feels like the change is too much too soon - sort of like going down a black diamond when a green is the wiser choice.

I will support whatever decision is made; I'm glad I don't have to be the one to make it.

Best of luck!

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