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Is the Traditional Bar Exam on Its Way Out? States Reconsidering Lawyer Licensing Methods
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Maine is considering joining a growing number of states that allow aspiring lawyers to take the bar exam without going to law school. Lawmakers in the state will hold a public hearing on a bill permitting individuals who have studied for two years under the supervision of an experienced attorney to take the lawyer licensing test.

The proposed legislation would add Maine to the jurisdictions with so-called apprenticeship programs, including California, Virginia, Washington, and Vermont. To be eligible to take the bar exam, apprentices would need to study for a minimum of 18 hours per week for two years under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

The goal of the proposed legislation is to encourage new lawyers to stay in Maine and address the state’s lawyer shortage. State Representative David Boyer, who introduced the bill, said Maine is so desperate for lawyers that it needs alternative solutions. He noted that state courts have a backlog of cases they will not clear until 2028.

  
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The move to allow apprenticeship programs comes as many states reevaluate how they license new lawyers. Some jurisdictions focus on bolstering the number of lawyers serving rural communities, while others aim to make the process more efficient.

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The changes are also occurring amid a significant overhaul of the bar exam. The National Conference of Bar Examiners is developing the so-called NextGen Bar Exam, which will be launched in 2026. The new test will emphasize practical skills and could significantly impact how states license new lawyers.

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While the proposed legislation in Maine is still in its early stages, other states are also considering alternative pathways to licensure for aspiring lawyers. For example, a pending bill in North Dakota urges its judiciary to evaluate alternative pathways to licensure designed to keep graduates of the state’s only law school from moving away. Similarly, Oregon is developing several options for law graduates to become licensed without taking the bar exam.

In Georgia, a task force recently recommended that the courts permit students in their final semester of law school to sit for the bar exam. This would reduce the delay between graduation and being licensed to practice. In Wisconsin, graduates of in-state law schools are currently the only individuals who can bypass the bar exam.



Despite these efforts, few people are participating in existing apprenticeship programs. In California, for example, according to state bar records, fewer than 11 of the 7,543 people who took the bar exam in July 2022 studied under an attorney or judge.

In many cases, these alternative pathways to licensure address a shortage of lawyers in rural areas. For example, California’s program allows apprentices to provide legal services in underserved communities while they work toward taking the bar exam.

However, these alternative pathways are not without their critics. Some argue that law school provides a critical foundation in legal theory that cannot be replicated through an apprenticeship program. Others worry that allowing apprentices to take the bar exam could lower standards for the legal profession.

Despite these concerns, the growing number of states considering alternative pathways to licensure suggests that change is on the horizon for the legal profession. As the legal industry continues to evolve, states must adapt their licensing requirements to ensure that they are producing competent and ethical lawyers who can meet the needs of their communities.



 

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