Some UNH law school grads don’t have to take the bar exam

  • A group of graduates from UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law became lawyers Friday without having to take the two-day bar exam after going through the school’s Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program. Courtesy

  • Sarah Carter is shown being sworn in at Friday’s graduation of the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. The Hampton Beach native will start work as an attorney in the New Hampshire Public Defender’s office in Keene. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/16/2020 6:44:36 PM

All graduations are unusual right now but Friday’s law school graduation in Concord was unusual for two reasons: It was online for the first time, and for the 13th time it turned students into lawyers without having to take the two-day bar exam.

“They’re not skipping the bar exam; they just took a different one … that lasted two years,” said Professor John Garvey, director of the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law.

That applies to the 21 UNH law graduates who went through the Daniel Webster Scholar program, which graduated its first class in 2008 and is still, the law school says, unique in the country. The program involves courses built around court simulations and practical experience more than lectures and has been accepted as an alternative to sitting in the bar exam that virtually all states, including New Hampshire, require in order to practice law.

“Classes were built around simulations instead of reading higher-court opinions, analyzing opinions. … We were writing before a federal judge, filing depositions –  that’s unheard of in first semester of second year,” said Sarah Carter, a Hampton Beach native who will start work as an attorney in the New Hampshire Public Defender’s office in Keene right after graduation.

“It’s similar to an apprenticeship,” she added. “I think it would be really cool for law schools to move back toward apprenticeship learning.”

The nation’s only bar-alterative program was launched in partnership with the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the New Hampshire Bar in 2005, after more than a decade of study and discussion. The American Bar Association gave the program the prestigious Gambrell Award in 2015, calling it “an exemplary and extraordinarily innovative approach” to legal education.

Among other things, the graduates create portfolios under repeat evaluation by bar examiners over the final two years of the three-year law school. After being sworn in at the Friday graduation, they became licensed, “client-ready” attorneys, meaning they can start work while other graduates are waiting to take the bar exam. Carter admits this was part of the reason she applied.

“I knew you could start working right away. … Finances are a thing that I’ve had to take into consideration. I was nervous if I had to wait until October when you receive the two-day bar result, after the loans have kicked in,” she said.

This is a sensitive topic right now because the need to socially isolate has scrambled the schedule for bar exams, which involve scores or hundreds of people sitting in a room for hours at a time. Most bar exams have been pushed back by months, leaving law school graduates in the lurch.

Students around the country, including members of the UNH law school who are not in the Daniel Webster program, have asked for options. Much of the UNH law school graduating class wrote a letter to the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners seeking either an online bar exam or diploma privilege – that is, being admitted to the state bar so they can start work as lawyers even before they have taken the bar exam – with additional requirements because of COVID-19 postponements.

The UNH letter was signed by 42 students, which appears to be most of the graduating class other than those in the Daniel Webster program. So far it has not been acted on.

The changes wrought by coronavirus might hasten a re-examination of the traditional bar exam, which currently is required by 49 states. This might make other schools take a look at what UNH has done.

“It has been looked at by a lot of schools,” said Garvey, who frequently speaks about the program to law groups. He says there’s no reason other states and schools couldn’t create something similar, although it requires a different type of organization.

“It takes coordination with the state. New Hampshire is uniquely situated with a very strong Supreme Court that cares about working with the school, and the (state) Bar Association being very involved,” he said.

Although the experiential courses may require more teaching effort and certainly more time and effort from bar examiners, he said the dollar cost hasn’t been great.

“It hasn’t cost the school more. This is what I’ve been saying to people around the country: if you build a community where you have an awful lot of people interested in helping law students become good professional lawyers, it’s not (more expensive),” he said. “We have so many volunteers in the program, court reporters, judges, court personnel – they all like to work with these students.”

The Daniel Webster Program students graduated in an online ceremony Friday morning while the rest of the class had a graduation live-stream Saturday afternoon, including a “virtual champagne toast.”

The school polled its students to ask how they wanted to celebrate and they “overwhelmingly” asked for an in-person ceremony.  It has been tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 3, in White Park. 

(David Brooks can be  reached at 369-3313  or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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