In late 2023, Oregon became the first state to offer candidates the opportunity to take part in supervised practice instead of the bar exam. Brian Gallini, dean of Willamette University College of Law, argues that the Supervised Portfolio Practice Examination (SPPE), as it’s called, should not be thought of as an alternative to the bar exam. Instead, he says, the SPEE, along with the new NextGen bar exam coming in 2025, should be thought of as part of the broader issuewithin the legal profession around “licensure reform.”
In this issue, we examine licensure reform and its implications. Across the country, advocates are asking: is the bar exam the best method for licensing lawyers? What other avenues might provide a better demonstration of a lawyer’s ability to practice? In “Practice-Ready Licensing,” lead authors Deborah Jones Merritt, Andrea Anne Curcio, and Eileen Kaufman offer perspectives on this issue based on empirical evidence from two California programs that offer students the opportunity to practice under supervision either before taking the bar exam (during the pandemic) or after “narrowly failing” the bar exam (and instead of taking the exam again). Merritt, Curcio, and Kaufman address frequently noted concerns about reform. Will candidates have supervision in every subject area they might practice as lawyers? No, but the bar exam also does not test every doctrinal subject that might be relevant to a lawyer’s career. Will supervisors be willing to oversee new lawyers? Will it be a cumbersome amount of work? Many legal offices already provide mentorship and training to new lawyers, the lead authors point out, and even after the California programs, “More than two-thirds of supervisors (70.6 percent) indicated that they were willing to continue supervising candidates, and another 16.5 percent were open to that possibility.” But even more impressive are the benefits that employers, candidates, and clients found by participating in the program, with huge advantages for access to justice. As Merritt, Curcio, and Kaufman write:
In the California programs, more than a fifth (22.2 percent) of licensees worked for legal aid, public defenders, or other public-interest employers. They were able to represent disadvantaged clients immediately, without waiting to take and pass the bar exam. As one provisional licensee noted, “I am working as a first-generation lawyer in a legal aid office. I have already put in 3,000 hours of direct community lawyering in a domestic violence clinic and doing housing rights advocacy.”
To complement “Practice-Ready Licensing,” we offer two related lenses on these debates. In “Accounting for Licensure,” we move outside of the legal profession and examine how accounting has addressed the professional challenges of licensure reform. Like law, CPAs are scrutinizing what skills and education will build competent, practice-ready accountants and how licensure fits in with those processes. In “Advocating for Apprenticeship,” we examine what “apprenticeship” formally means, and what the legal profession might learn from such programs in the U.S. and around the world.
Finally, we speak with Dean Gallini at Willamette whose role on the Oregon Alternatives to the Bar Exam Task Force gave him an inside view on discussions over reform in the state. As Oregon embarks on this new program, he says:
In my view, one of the hardest things about accomplishing meaningful reform to attorney licensure is getting people to a place where they will think about a different approach. As a profession, we’re so wedded to doing it the way we’ve always done it. That’s what I would hope the legacy of this initiative will do for others, to give them something to point to, to say, “OK, we’re not the first. Here’s some other state that’s thought about this and was willing to do it differently. Maybe we should be too.”