Tennessee Considers Major Change To Bar Exam

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Tennessee Board of Law Examiners has filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Tennessee to adopt the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), which would be a major change in the portability of bar exam results for aspiring Tennessee attorneys. The UBE is a nationwide test that has been adopted by 28 states and allows takers to transfer scores between states. Under current rules, a Tennessee lawyer needing to obtain a license in another state would have to meet waiver requirements, which often include a significant experience component, or retake the bar exam in that state. The proposal would allow UBE scores earned in Tennessee to be used to become licensed in others states. In addition, attorneys from other states utilizing the UBE could petition for admittance in Tennessee based on those results.

“Lawyers are more mobile than they once were. No longer do lawyers settle in one state and practice in that state until retirement,” said Jeffrey Ward, President of the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners (TBLE). “Multi-jurisdictional, or cross-border, practice is more common, particularly in Tennessee, where we border more states than any other state in the Union. This can be seen in the increase in applications for admissions without examination in recent years.”

Between 2012 and 2016, TBLE saw a 90.4 percent increase in requests for admission without examination and a 218 percent increase in in-house counsel registration applications. In Tennessee, in order to be eligible for admission without exam, lawyers must be in good standing in at least one other jurisdiction and have at least five to seven years of experience.  The proposal would provide more mobility for younger, or more recently admitted, attorneys.

“Adopting the Uniform Bar Exam makes sense for several reasons. Any lawyer who successfully completes the UBE will be able to move more readily from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” said Alberto R. Gonzales, Dean and Doyle Rogers Distinguished Professor of Law at Belmont University College of Law. “Additionally, while the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners does a good job with the Tennessee Bar Exam, adoption of the UBE will, on balance, result in higher quality bar exam essay questions. Finally, with the UBE applicants will have access to published quality model or selected exam answers which should help them be better prepared to take the bar exam.”

The UBE is prepared and coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and consists of three parts: the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which includes 200 multiple choice questions; two Multistate Performance Test (MPT) tasks, which are 90-minute exercises testing basic lawyering skills; and six Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) questions. The current Tennessee Bar Exam uses the MBE multiple choice questions, one MPT task, and nine Tennessee-specific essay questions. The nine essay questions are prepared and graded locally. One benefit of using the MEE essay questions is the vast amount of testing and resources that go into developing each question, something that is hard to duplicate on a small scale, according to the petition. If the proposal is accepted, the MEE questions would still be graded by local Tennessee attorneys.

Opponents of the UBE often express concern that the examination lacks an ability to emphasize or test on local laws and procedures, which can vary from state-to-state, especially in the areas of civil and criminal procedure, real estate, and wills, trusts, and estates. In order to address this concern, the proposal recommends instituting a mandatory, post-admission local law course. Lawyers are already required to take continuing legal education every year to maintain a license.

The petition requests that the UBE be adopted beginning with the July 2018 administration of the Tennessee Bar examination.

In the region, Alabama, Missouri, West Virginia, and South Carolina have adopted the UBE. The North Carolina Board of Law Examiners voted to adopt the UBE effective February 2019, but the proposal has not yet been accepted by the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

The Tennessee proposal is now open for public comment, which will be accepted until Jan. 5, 2018. The comments will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee before a final decision is made.


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