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Oregon’s Alternative Pathway to the Bar Gains Popularity
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Oregon’s innovative Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination (SPPE) is quickly becoming a favored route for law graduates aiming to join the state’s bar. This alternative path allows graduates from ABA-accredited law schools to bypass the traditional bar exam by completing a structured apprenticeship under the supervision of a licensed attorney. The program, which emphasizes practical legal skills, has garnered significant interest from both candidates and employers.

Rising Interest in the SPPE Program

Since applications opened on May 15, the SPPE has attracted 47 candidates and 62 attorneys from 57 different employers, according to Kateri Walsh, the Oregon State Bar’s director of communications. This enthusiastic response reflects the legal community’s support for this hands-on training approach, which aims to bridge the gap between academic learning and real-world legal practice.

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Program Requirements and Structure

The SPPE requires candidates to complete a 675-hour paid apprenticeship under the guidance of a qualified, supervising Oregon-licensed attorney. This apprenticeship includes conducting at least two client interviews or counseling sessions, leading two negotiations, and producing eight pieces of written work. The traditional bar exam remains an option, but the SPPE offers a more practical route to licensure that aligns closely with the day-to-day tasks of practicing lawyers.

Academic and Professional Endorsements

Willamette University College of Law Interim Dean Jeffery C. Dobbins reports that around 10% of their 2024 graduates, along with several graduates from previous years, are pursuing the SPPE. This alternative pathway not only prepares candidates for the practical aspects of legal work but also addresses long-standing criticisms about the lack of practical training in traditional legal education.

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Addressing Practical Training Deficiencies

A study by Major, Lindsey & Africa, and Leopard Solutions found that nearly half of law firm associates felt unprepared for practice upon graduating, primarily due to insufficient practical training. The SPPE addresses this issue by providing immersive, supervised practice, ensuring that new attorneys are better equipped to meet the demands of their profession.

Broader Implications and Future Prospects

The American Bar Association (ABA) recently approved a policy shift allowing states to explore licensure methods beyond the traditional bar exam. This endorsement could inspire other states to adopt similar pathways. In March, the Washington Supreme Court approved additional pathways involving supervised practice, signaling a potential trend in legal licensure reform.

Market-Driven Dynamics

The SPPE’s success hinges on the willingness of employers to participate as supervising attorneys. This market-driven model requires candidates to secure a supervising attorney before they can apply, ensuring that the program is responsive to the needs of both the legal market and aspiring lawyers. Oregon firms of various sizes are considering this pathway to attract top talent and address market demands.

Benefits for Rural and Public Sector Law

The SPPE also offers potential benefits for underserved areas. Provisional licensees might choose to work in high-need areas, such as rural regions or public defense, during their licensure period. This approach could improve access to legal services in these communities, fulfilling a critical need.

Immediate Workforce Integration

One of the key advantages of the SPPE is that graduates can begin working immediately after graduation, rather than waiting months to pass the bar exam. This immediate integration into the workforce benefits both graduates and employers, providing early on-the-job training and reducing the risk of mistakes common among newly minted attorneys.

Equity and Diversity Considerations

The ABA’s release of bar pass rates by race and ethnicity highlighted disparities in the traditional licensure process. By offering a skills-based pathway, the SPPE aims to create a more equitable system that supports a diverse range of candidates. This initiative reflects Oregon’s commitment to challenging the status quo and promoting inclusivity in the legal profession.

Reflection and Evolution

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Oregon Supreme Court to grant emergency diploma privilege to the class of 2020, sparking a reevaluation of traditional licensure methods. Concerns about maintaining high standards quickly dissipated as employers recognized the competency of graduates admitted via diploma privilege. This shift in perspective has paved the way for more innovative licensure models like the SPPE.

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