ABA Endorses Alternative Attorney Licensing Pathways

A Historic Shift in ABA Policy

The American Bar Association (ABA) has endorsed new attorney licensing pathways that do not involve the traditional bar exam. This significant policy change, adopted by the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education, marks a departure from over a century of support for bar exams as the primary route to legal practice.

Call for Diverse Licensing Pathways

The newly adopted policy statement urges states to develop varied pathways to licensure. This move aligns with growing state-level initiatives to establish alternative licensing methods, driven by concerns over racial disparities in bar exam pass rates and the financial burden of taking the exam.

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State-Level Initiatives

Oregon and Washington have already implemented new licensing pathways. Oregon’s apprenticeship pathway, introduced in November, allows law graduates to qualify without taking the bar exam. Washington’s dual approach, adopted in March, offers both an apprenticeship pathway and a skills coursework option. Meanwhile, California, Minnesota, and Utah are considering similar proposals.

Research and Public Safety

Council member Carla Pratt highlighted research showing that lawyers admitted through alternative pathways do not pose a greater risk to the public. This research supported the committee’s recommendation to explore and endorse diverse licensure routes.

Guidance vs. Standards

While the ABA’s legal education policy statements provide guidance for law schools, they do not carry the same authority as the ABA’s accreditation standards, which are mandatory for law school accreditation. The responsibility for lawyer licensing remains with state courts or other regulatory bodies.

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Addressing Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities

The policy statement also addresses the need to create licensing pathways that reduce the exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities and individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Bar exam data reveals persistent racial disparities: in 2023, the first-time pass rate was 84% for white test takers, compared to 71% for Hispanic examinees and 58% for Black test takers.

Online Law Schools

In addition to licensing pathways, the ABA council decided to continue exploring the accreditation of fully online law schools. The council needs more time to gather data and develop detailed proposals for online juris doctor programs.

This progressive step by the ABA reflects a broader effort to make the legal profession more inclusive and accessible, addressing both historical inequities and modern educational needs.

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Maria Lenin Laus: