Iowa may dump bar exam for UIowa and Drake grads

Graduates of Iowa’s two law schools might be able to practice law without taking the Iowa State Bar Exam, according to a report from an Iowa Bar Association committee.

The proposed recommendation would allow graduates from the University of Iowa College of Law and Drake University Law School to utilize an alternate means of admission to the Iowa State Bar absent examination, similar to what is offered in Wisconsin. The proposal would apply only to Iowa law school graduates who remain in Iowa for employment. An ethics exam and character and fitness examinations would still be required.

“The benefits of the proposed rule for admission absent examination for qualified graduates of the two Iowa law schools start with the reduction of the law school student debt of the new lawyers, but they extend further,” the committee report said. “The proposed rule promises benefits to Iowa’s rural and traditionally underrepresented communities, and to our bench and bar.”

The committee cited the high bar passage rate of graduates of Iowa law schools, only two percent in the past five years failed to obtain admission to the bar due to the examination of substantive knowledge, as one reason requiring bar passage is no longer necessary.

“The Committee reviewed the academic programs of the two Iowa law schools and concludes, consistent with the reliably high pass rates for their educations, that our two Iowa law schools are providing their students with a solid legal education,” the report said.

The lengthy amount of time graduates are required to wait between graduating from law school, taking the bar and receiving their licenses was another reason the committee cited for its recommendation.

“This year, for example, students at the two Iowa law schools graduated in mid-May; those who took and passed the July bar examination were sworn in on September 30,” the report said. “The four and one half month delay between graduation and bar admission represents a significant cost for these students.”

The report indicated that a student with average amount of law school student loans would experience approximately a $29,000 cost due to the delay.

“For most students, it really is just wasted time because they’re not able to practice, they aren’t able to get out and start earning money to pay off those student debts,” Allan Vestal, Drake University Law School Dean told the Des Moines Register.

Despite the committee’s recommendation, Iowa lawmakers are vehemently opposing the proposal. Governor Terry Branstad told reporters on Jan. 13 he was against the idea.

“As someone that took the bar, I think they ought to take the bar,” he said. “I think this is part of making sure that people are qualified and competent to do the job,”

Representative Chip Baltimore, an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was also opposed to the proposal. Baltimore expressed concerns that the percentage of students who fail the bar examination each year will have a cumulative effect on the quality of lawyers in the state.

“I think as you’re going through law school and studying for classes, you know the bar exam is out there,” Baltimore said. “I think that you work harder in law school to learn the material if you know that at the end, there’s one test that is going to make or break your career.”

Proponents of the proposal believe the changes would allow new lawyers to move to smaller, rural communities in Iowa that don’t offer as competitive salaries but face a high population of retiring lawyers.

The proposal will be considered by Iowa Supreme Court justices this summer. If approved, the proposal would likely be made available for public comment before final approval.

David Brown, the Des Moines attorney who chaired the committee told the Des Moines Register the proposal would likely be fully debated among Iowa attorneys and the general public if the Iowa Supreme Court approves it and sends it for public comment. 

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