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In-Box: Reader responds concerning proposed changes to state's bar exam

July 31, 2013
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Letters to the Editor

To the editor:

As a new lawyer, I appreciate the timely news and critical legal updates provided by the Indiana Lawyer. I would like to take this opportunity to write in response to a June 19, 2013, IL article on proposed changes to the Indiana Bar Examination.

As a recent law school graduate and even more recent bar exam participant (July 2012), I would like to express my concern for the proposed changes to the Indiana Bar Exam. While I can appreciate the challenges associated with changing anything, particularly a bar exam, the proposed changes seem to entirely miss the boat on the purpose of any bar examination.

The article suggests that a bar exam is the opportunity for the examiners to make a determination as to which candidates appear at least minimally competent to practice law in Indiana. That is about the only premise I generally agree with, and yet I personally know people who did not pass the bar exam that are more competent in certain areas of the law than I could hope to be.

The article suggests that bar exam candidates “learn” Indiana law by studying for the bar exam. That’s simply not accurate. I took the exam, and I would not begin to suggest that I learned Indiana law by that preparation. In fact, if I recall correctly, there were only two questions on the Indiana Bar Exam in July 2012 that even remotely hinted at Indiana law – one regarding family law and one regarding simple, basic trial rules/procedure. The essay I remember most clearly was the one on UCC-3, a course I never took in law school and a subject that I memorized for the Indiana Bar Exam using a mnemonic device, which I don’t remember. Yet I’m certain I scored every point possible on that question. My “flawless” answer to that question should not have determined that I was “minimally competent to practice in Indiana,” but it likely did contribute to my passing that exam. Personally, I’d prefer that the state went to a diploma privilege license like Wisconsin with the additional requirement that new law school graduates then apprentice for several years with experienced lawyers. That’s another discussion.

My primary concern with the proposed changes to the bar exam is that there is no discussion of moving to the Uniform Bar Examination like at least 13 other states have already done. Just use the MBE, the two ridiculous MPT “products” if you must, and six national essays. If 13 other states can figure out who is minimally competent to practice law from the UBE, so can the Indiana Board of Law Examiners. The benefit for the hundreds of Indiana law school graduates – portability of the UBE score to other jurisdictions – far outweighs any presumed competence the Indiana bar might think it is gaining by using Indiana specific essays. And, based on my experience, Indiana only currently uses one or two somewhat specific essays per exam administration at this point.

The proposed changes such as adding tax law and bankruptcy law to the exam is a great idea in theory, but it is flawed in its premise that anyone is going to come out of that exam preparation ready to practice, for example, bankruptcy law with minimum competency. I had an excellent course in bankruptcy law in law school and did well in it. I also worked in a law office in Crown Point for two years while in law school with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. The only thing I know for certain is that I am in no way competent to practice bankruptcy law, even though I am technically licensed to do so. If I were to decide to practice bankruptcy law, or any other field for that matter, I would work with an expert lawyer who has been doing it for 20-plus years and knows what he or she is talking about. To do it any other way seems to me to be flirting with malpractice.

As the nation’s law schools regroup and restructure to offer more practical, skills-based education to their students, boards of law examiners and state bars should be restructuring their requirements to insist on far more than minimal competency in the candidates that enter the profession. Is it ethical to allow a “minimally competent” lawyer to practice law on an unsuspecting client? Now that would be a useful question on the MPRE!

So, do future attorneys a huge favor and don’t be the last jurisdiction to switch to the UBE. Do something truly important for lawyer competency in Indiana – put a “residency” requirement in place for all new Indiana attorneys, regardless of what area of the law they want to practice, rather than Indiana’s current position of allowing new lawyers to practice on their clients. Thank heavens the medical profession doesn’t allow a minimally competent doctor to do open heart surgery. It should be no different for attorneys.•

Richard Mitchell, Ph.D., J.D.

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