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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Bar reform in California. A promising start

Innovation in legal services is a slog.  One that rewards those who take the long view, and who can find some cautious optimism in a world of setbacks -- of protectionism, parochialism, inertia, and even the occasional crisis (financial; pandemic, etc) that knocks back fruitful experiments to the beginning or off the stage altogether.  This is at least as true of lawyer credentialing and the administration of the much-maligned bar exam.

And so we should welcome the interesting experiment just announced out of California.  The Golden State is eschewing its cooperation with the Nat'l Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the organization based in Madison, Wisconsin -- peculiarly, given that this is the state that grants the diploma privilege to state law school grads, but I digress.  The NCBE has had an iron death-grip on the content, and many elements of administration, of the bar exams of states around the country.  The organization has not had a reputation for being especially innovation minded; nor has it been, in my experience, a constructive cooperator.  Anecdote: I was once in a meeting of twenty or so deans with the then-director of the organization, in the hopes of facilitating a useful exchange of student performance and bar data, data which has long been critical to a better understanding of where law schools fail, where NCBE and bar authorities come up short, and how we might improve the world for our students.  The response was, and this is mighty close to a direct quote:  "Well, we have high-level psychometricians at NCBE who work on these difficult issues and law schools (and other groups) couldn't possibly grasp the nuance of this performance information."  Us pea-brained deans got the message, and left without any optimism that law school/NCBE cooperation would be forthcoming.  About a dozen years later:  Same as it ever was.

Into this frustrating status quo comes California's decision to work internally on key matters of bar administration, including the possibility of an in-home version of the test -- something that so many grads pleaded for during Covid, and disabled grads would benefit from going forward.  Even more promising is the prospect that, in collaboration with Kaplan, Inc., California will develop some ambitious new types of content -- something that is really truly a "new generation" bar exam, which the NCBE has been touting with some fanfare for the last few years.  By way of context, I was involved in some conversations with state bar staff and an organization whose name I won't here disclose about the prospect of leveraging new ways of assessing knowledge, perhaps drawing from developments in gamification and AI/machine learning.  While I honestly don't know if this future-oriented discussion is part of this new initiative, I hope California will use all the big brains it can muster to give us novel, constructive ideas.

To be sure, this is a partnership with a company that has skin in the game.  I won't speak to either the incentives or the bona fides of Kaplan in regard, not for any cagey reason but just from a dearth of actual knowledge of the arrangement struck.  But I'll just say that the fact that California apparently knows what it doesn't know and seeks out external help from an organization other than one whose monopoly over bar exam ventures has hobbled innovation, is a promising development.  Many things betwixt cup and lip for sure, but we should watch with great interest what happens in California.  A failure will be a setback, but this natural experiment will yield valuable information.  That's what laboratories of experimentation are all about.  And if this succeeds, both in solving some serious financial problems that plague Cal Bar and in advancing the welfare of our graduates, that's a game-changer.  And change is what we need.

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on May 15, 2024 at 03:45 PM in Daniel Rodriguez | Permalink


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