Study Lauds UNH Law Program That Allows Students To Bypass Traditional Bar Exam

Apr 8, 2015

Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program students being sworn in.
Credit University of New Hampshire School of Law

A decade after its inception, a program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law is being looked at as a national model as an alternative way to prepare new lawyers for the field.

The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program was created in 2005.

A recent study found that program’s students have outperformed colleagues in the field who are licensed to practice within the last two years.

The most unique feature of the program is it allows some students to bypass the traditional bar exam.

UNH Law professor John Garvey directs the program. He joined Morning Edition to talk about how it works.

The alternative licensing program you’ve created here in New Hampshire seems to be part of a national trend of rethinking the way law students are evaluated for entrance into the field. Why is the program needed?

It’s needed because people have talked about it for a long time but still haven’t figured out a way to accomplish what is needed to make a person who is in law ready to actually practice law.

So the discussion has been going on for a long time now.

A long time.

It sounds like the emphasis of your program is on the practical skills of being a lawyer. Can you explain how you decide who gets admitted and what kind of training they go through?

The last two years in law school are where this program takes place, so they’ve already had the first year of the traditional doctrinal courses, the basic law courses.

So the fundamentals are the same.

Right, and so they do that to get ready to go into this program. During the last two years of law school, they take courses that have been designed for the mission of making law students client ready. During those last two years, they take six Webster Scholar courses that are specifically created with a lot of experiential education. They also work in residencies in the field and they work in clinics.

They’re selected based upon a kind of holistic of picking students who seem to be willing to do more than is otherwise required of them. These are people generally speaking who are in law school to practice law and they want to get just as much as they can out of those last two years so they can be ready and hit the ground running.

Can you explain how that is different from a traditional program?

The traditional three-year course of law school is for the most part sitting in a classroom, listening to a professor, maybe taking a mid-term examination partway through the course, and then taking a final examination, and then moving on.

So there’s no requirement to go out into the field?

Correct.

Your program graduated 22 students last May who were all able to bypass the traditional bar exam. How many have graduated since it began?

We’ve graduated 124 students, I believe. And we currently have 47 in the system.

Do you measure how they do once they enter the field? Do you measure their progress?

Yes. Anecdotally, I can say I found this to be true from the feedback I’ve heard from the law firms that hired these people. When the program first started, lawyers tend to be traditional people, so there was a sense that they had to take the bar exam, so why shouldn’t they have to. So we helped educate people that this was a two-year bar exam instead of a two-day bar exam. There were some people in the first instance who were willing to try hiring a Webster Scholar to see what that was like. 

We helped educate people that this was a two-year bar exam instead of a two-day bar exam.

I think the proof has been in the fact that many of the law firms that have hired one have now hired two, or more even. I think when they see the Webster Scholars, they see that they have developed skills, they know how to do things that usually you get trained to do when you’re already an associate, they know how to interview a client, they have had to make judgments on their own. They’ve had to learn from their mistakes and hopefully they don’t make them again when they’re in practice. So they tend to be, as the report called them, ahead of the curve.

Could students who leave the program still practice in other states without having taken the bar exam?

They would need to take the bar exam in the other state just like they would if they graduated from a traditional law school. What they get is a degree from an ABA accredited law school.

But in order to practice in particular state, they have to pass the rules and regulations of that state?

They are deemed to have passed the New Hampshire bar. So for example, as time goes by, they may depending on the rules of another state be allowed to move after they’ve been in practice for a certain number of years and get in that way without taking the other state’s bar, but just graduating from law school, immediately passing the New Hampshire variant of the Webster bar, and then moving to another state, they’d have to take that state’s bar, as well.

Supporters of the bar exam say it’s still the best way to safeguard against unqualified people from entering the legal field and protect clients. Does the bar exam still have a place in the system?

The traditional bar exam is going to be around. It’s another form of testing. It’s a form that looks more toward whether a person is minimally competent as a consumer protection matter, whereas our program tries to look to see whether the law student is actually client ready. So we’re looking at more than they’re looking at. But there needs to be some sort of evaluation of people to see whether they’re able to practice law in a reasonable and ethical manner.

I think the proof has been in the fact that many of the law firms that have hired one have now hired two, or more even.

The study we mentioned earlier was done by the Institute for Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. From this study, are you hearing from other schools around the nation that want to model this program?

All the time we’re hearing from schools around the country. This Friday, there is a school from New York that wants to look at what we’re doing. Later on, we’re entertaining a school from London that wants to look at what we’re doing. We’ve had other schools come in. I get inquiries all the time about what we’re doing. Whether anybody exactly replicates it or whether they pick and choose is of course up to them.

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