The Iowa Supreme Court heard several hours of presentations from both sides over a proposal to allow students who graduate from the two laws schools in the state to immediately start practicing without taking the state bar exam.
District Court Judge, Jim Elleffson, was asked how the so-called “diploma privilege” would impact the quality of lawyers based the bar exams he’s administered. “Qualitatively, to let some of the folks out who have given some of the answers that I have seen in the 17 years I have graded the bar exam would be a disaster,” Elleffson says. “They would be an embarrassment to the bar, they would be an embarrassment to the judiciary.”
Elleffson says the exam serves a key purpose. “It seems to me that there are essentially three issues. One is the protection of the public. The other is the fact that I believe the bar exam makes law students into better students,” Elleffson says. Elleffson says the third key issue in keeping the bar exam is that it identifies what he calls the “Hallmark of Lawyers” among the law school graduates.
“When we talk about the Hallmark of Lawyers I think we are talking about an ability to think, I think we are talking about an ability to recognize issues, to analyze those issues and to clearly communicate our analysis of those issue,” Elleffson explains.
Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin, offered a different view of taking the exam. “The whole experience was for me, simply horrendous,” Conlin says. “There is no relationship to any skill necessary to practice law.” Conlin says the exam is something she will never forget.
“I have argued dozens of cases before this court and other appellant courts, and I have never felt the fear that I felt taking the Iowa Bar Examination,” Conlin says. She says she favored instituting the diploma privilege after taking the bar exam, but then became involved in other things and didn’t push the change.
Conlin says she was pleased to learn that a Blue Ribbon Committee had recommended doing away with the bar exam. “It measures nothing about what one needs to have to practice law effectively. It accomplishes nothing — it is not even a decent right of passage,” Conlin says. “Instead it is simply a test of one’s ability to live through three days of unrelenting stress.”
The Iowa Supreme Court also received more than 150 written comments on the issue. A court spokesman says there is not timetable for when the justices will decide the issue. Wisconsin is the only state that allows law school graduates to begin working without passing a bar exam.