Story by Colton Warren
Iowa is attempting to become the second state in the country to allow law school graduates to practice law without passing the bar exam.
A proposal to the Iowa Supreme Court said the financial burden placed on graduates and the long downtime between graduation and admittance into the Iowa Bar Association were the main reasons for change. The proposal would abolish the bar exam for graduates of Iowa’s two law schools.
“The proposal now is that if you’ve graduated from Iowa or Drake, and you have taken a certain list of courses, which is designed to make sure you’ve got that core competency, you can be admitted without having to take the bar exam,” said Allan Vestal, dean of the Drake University Law School.
Vestal is part of the Blue Ribbon Committee of the Iowa State Bar Association that wrote the current proposal. He said his main concern is the time period between being admitted and being able to practice.
“It used to be that you took the exam in June. The examination ran for two and a half days: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning. They announced the results Wednesday night and swore you in on Thursday, so it was immediate,” Vestal said. “Now, the students have to wait until July to take the exam, then don’t get the results back. … This last year, it was the last day of September that they got sworn in, so there’s a much lengthier delay in terms of being able to get in to practice.”
Vestal explained the delay in becoming certified creates a wealth of issues financially.
“For the students — most of them — it means they are not working for their firms. It means they are running additional debt, and they are not able to make any income,” Vestal said.
For the 2014-15 academic year, Drake Law School tuition is $37,994. Following three years of tuition, Vestal and Jennifer Zwagerman, director of career development at the Drake Law School, said many students must take out more loans for bar exam study courses, bar exam fees and living expenses for the months not being able to practice.
“Those would essentially be eliminated in large part by not having the bar exam,” Zwagerman said.
For graduates of Iowa’s two law schools — Drake University Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law — passing the proposed changes could mean the chance to begin practicing immediately following graduation.
“By not having to take the bar exam, you have made yourself eligible for positions that much faster,” Zwagerman said. “It makes you available and more competitive than you would be when you are studying for the bar exam, and it’s going to be four-to-five months before you can be eligible to do the work they want to hire you for.”
Iowa currently uses the national version of the bar exam that does not test on law in the state of Iowa specifically. Graduates would take a course pertaining to Iowa law specifically during their time in law school. They would also still be required to go through character and fitness review that ensures applicants are trustworthy and reliable.
“Over the last five years, of the Drake and University of Iowa students who have taken the bar exam, 98 percent have passed,” Vestal said. “So you have a test that imposes a real penalty on the students because they can’t practice and pay off debt.”
Vestal said he has an answer for those who may doubt the large changes.
“Look to Wisconsin and see how they have handled it there. … They have had this rule forever,” Vestal said. “I never heard anybody make the comment that lawyers who went to Marquette or Wisconsin weren’t as well qualified because they didn’t have to take the bar exam. It was a complete non-issue.”