Looming Changes to State Bar Requirements

Looming Changes to State Bar Requirements

By: Nicholas Weiss

“It’s a pretty big issue,” Derek Noack (2L) tells me, “and something will happen.”  Derek explains that, while working in USD’s Center for Public Interest Law, he learned that the State Bar is considering some big changes to the admissions regulations.  “I don’t think many students know about this, and it could kick in fairly quickly,” he warns.  The State Bar website confirms that changes are being planned.[1]

Months ago, the State Bar created a Task Force to determine whether the State Bar should develop a requirement of a “pre-admission practical skills training program.”  The Task Force met in July, August, September, and November; they plan to meet again in February.  Early meetings served to analyze programs of other states while more recent meetings resulted in support for some form of practical skills training.  Derek thinks the upcoming February meeting will include a specific proposal.  The State Bar website indicates that any proposed plan would have to be made by April.

Though no specific plan has been created as of yet, the aim is to create a med school type residency requirement. The basic idea is that new lawyers and the public at large would be better served with more hands-on training.  Students would leave law school having learned practical skills; post-school, pre-bar work would come at a lower price.  Lower prices are appealing to clients who have gotten fed up with paying for young lawyers’ training or, like many public interest groups, cannot afford to do so.

Popular ideas include pro-bono hours, pre- and post- graduation mentorships, conditional licenses for new graduates, and an expansion of the continuing education system.  Several states have tried one or more of these plans.  Law school graduates must work in the legal field before they can practice in Delaware or Vermont.  New York requires students to do fifty hours of pro bono work before admission to the Bar.  Jon Streeter, leader of the Task Force, is pushing for allowing a variety of these options over a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Many students see the value in additional hands-on training.  “I like the proposed change,” says 2L Annie Kong, “if loan repayment started after the practical skills training is done.  It will make the new graduates smarter, more practical, and more skilled in their jobs after law school.”  1L Kieran de Terra agrees, “A mentorship would be brilliant.  That’s what I’d prefer if there were a practical skills requirement.”

Nonetheless, students are concerned that they may have another hoop to jump through before they can enter the market.  It is thought that any plan that adds to student debt and defers wages will weigh heavily on our already strained bank accounts.  Kieran adds, “Would we be talking six months?  A one-year requirement?  Could it be satisfied through school or does it have to be done post-graduation?  I could see how it would frustrate students who feel they need to start working ASAP to start paying down their loans.”  Dean Ferruolo agrees.  He wrote to the task force, but has not yet gotten a response.  His office allowed me to reprint his letter:

[A]ny such requirement will likely add to the costs and time spent on a legal training prior to bar admission, which are already too expensive and too long. . . [M]entoring (which appears to be the real issue of concern) is far better done by actual practitioners in the real world of practice, rather than in law schools, even with our extensive clinical programs, where students certainly do learn valuable practice skills.  The appropriate response to a situation described, where “clients are no longer willing to pay for young lawyers to get on-the-job training at their law firms,” is not to impose those training costs on law schools but on the law firms themselves, where such training was once (and should again be) effectively done at partners’ time and expense.  In my 20-year experience as a business lawyer, I found that associates got their most valuable training by being part of a deal or client team. . . The investment I made in mentoring those lawyers was worth every hour of time that I did not record or that I wrote off and did not bill to my clients.  I urge. . . the Task Force to consider the ever-increasing profits of law firms in contrast to the current financial situation of law schools, and even more in relation to the increasing debt burdens being imposed on our students, in considering where to allocate the responsibility for such mentoring.

Task Force member Loren Kieve is unconcerned with critiques of the proposal, saying, “If you require it, they will do it.”  Similarly, 2L Kevin Fannan thinks “Most people will probably satisfy the requirement without trying if they just get an internship.”  Some of the proposed options could certainly be completed during law school, but the point of the plan is to have an extra requirement, so it is unclear how easy the requirement will be to fulfill.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country and the law school reform spectrum, New York is considering shortening the law school process.  Law.com and the New York Times[2] report that the New York Bar is considering a rule allowing students to take the bar after two years of law school instead of three.  The plan is designed to lower the cost of law school tuition and to put legal skills to work sooner.

Again, the reduced cost is heralded as a boon to public interests that were losing out on great lawyers.  If law school costs 33% less, it is thought, then there will be more low-income applicants.  It is also expected that these low-income applicants will be more likely to “return to their roots” and help low income communities.  Moreover, lawyers of all backgrounds will have less debt, and feel more able to take lower-paying jobs.

The New York Times piece explains how shortening the required curriculum could help law schools as well.  The third year, after all, is famously known to “bore you to death.”  Making the third year optional, however, will force schools to “earn” attendance by offering more interesting and useful courses.  The self-selecting group of law students who opt for the third year would also be more excited to be in class—which is more fun for everybody.

“I like the New York plan,” says 2L Ted Ravan, “it allows students to work at their own pace and reduces tuition costs.”  1L Kieran can already see the dollar signs in his future, “it seems like 3L year is just prolonging entering practice and adding $40k to students’ debts unnecessarily.”

Of course, there are critiques of New York’s proposal as well.  Law.com reports that some professors think employers will look down upon those who opt out of the third year, creating a caste system in the legal community.  Still others think that law schools will struggle with loss of revenue.  These critics fear that a loss of revenue could have unforeseen negative consequences, including: bigger 1L classes, more expensive 1L and 2L courses, and reduced quality of legal education.

Though there is no indication it is being considered here, the New York plan may very well work with California’s imminent proposals.  It is thought that an optional third year would likely become highly skills-based.  Pro bono requirements and mentorships could just as easily be integrated into that curriculum.  This would allow students to hone their skills in a safe environment if they choose.  Students who do not opt for the third year could fulfill their requirements while they work, in their own time.

It seems unlikely that any changes, here or in New York, will affect current students directly.  “‘Fairly quickly’ is a relative term,” Dean Scivoletto explained, “if they go forward with changes, they won’t start implementing them right away.”  Indeed, the State Bar website indicates scheduled planning meetings continuing through June.  And even then, the proposal must be presented to and approved by the State Supreme Court before any implementation process begins.  Nonetheless, it is imperative that those considering a career in law are made aware of impending changes.  Even if we are not required to comply with the new requirements, they could affect the legal market that we are eager to join.  Students should share their opinions with the ABA and California State Bar leaders so that we can make sure our needs are not being misrepresented or ignored.  Spread the word and voice your opinion by commenting below or submitting Motions articles and ideas here.


[2] http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202585158075&thepage=1; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/18/opinion/practicing-law-should-not-mean-living-in-bankruptcy.html?_r=1&

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