Seattle U Law leaders feature prominently in WA Supreme Court bar licensure briefing

October 18, 2023 · By Nicole Jennings
A student sitting at a desk, writing with a pencil

Seattle University School of Law leaders played a key role in developing and presenting recommendations for bar exam reform to the Washington Supreme Court this week as part of their service on the Bar Licensure Task Force. Formed in 2020 by the court and co-chaired by Dean Anthony E. Varona, the task force studied the efficacy of the Washington lawyer bar exam in several ways, such as reviewing passage rates, analyzing bar exam methods, and examining alternatives to the traditional exam.

“It has been an honor to help lead this task force, especially as Washington Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis’s co-chair,” Varona said. “Our task force colleagues worked diligently over approximately three years to research, deliberate over, and formulate innovative and practical recommendations that will better protect and serve the public by addressing the legacy of bias in bar licensure, diversifying our profession, and helping remedy the severe shortage of lawyers in legal deserts throughout Washington and elsewhere.”

After opening remarks from Varona and Montoya-Lewis before the court, task force member Jeffrey Minneti, associate professor of law and assistant dean of Academic Excellence and Bar Success, introduced the task force’s new ideas and reasoning for recommending changes. Other members, including Brent Williams-Ruth ’01, founding attorney at the Law Offices of Brent Williams-Ruth, provided a deeper look at the recommendations.

These  include allowing apprenticeships and other forms of experience-based learning in lieu of the test, reducing the minimum score needed to pass the exam, and shortening the waiting period for an out-of-state attorney to become licensed in Washington.

Seattle U Law hosted an all-day retreat for the task force earlier this year, in which task force members voted on many recommendations.

“I am pleased that our task force’s recommendations were well received by the justices. Their questions were informed, incisive and important,” Varona said. “I look forward to helping lead the task force’s further collection and consideration of public feedback in the weeks ahead.”

The task force believes alternatives to the bar exam are necessary to ensure more fairness, diversity, and competence in the population of Washington attorneys.

First and foremost, Minneti explained that while the bar exam does a thorough job of assessing test-takers’ ability to memorize legal rules and engage in legal arguments under time constraints, it does not touch on many other legal skills that are just as necessary for a career as an attorney.

“In addition to having a threshold level knowledge in some areas and specific knowledge of the law in others, newly licensed lawyers must be minimally competent in a range of skills, including legal research, interpreting law, effective written communication, and managing clients, among many others, none of which are currently assessed on the bar exam,” Minneti said. “The task force’s recommendations for experiential and apprenticeship pathways to licensure will provide a way of assessing these areas, making the pathways a more authentic and effective measure of candidates’ competence to practice law.”

There are also concerns that the bar exam is discriminatory toward certain groups.

“Multiple studies have shown that the bar exam has a disproportionate impact on candidates of color, such that Black, Latino, and Asian candidates pass with grades far less than those of white candidates,” Minneti said, noting that there are many reasons for this.

As one example, Minneti explained that the bar’s financial obligation is challenging for test-takers from lower-income backgrounds, a group that disproportionately includes people of color. In addition to the exam fee, ideal bar preparation includes 10 weeks of at least 40 hours of study per week — leaving little time for a job — and a bar prep class costing thousands of dollars.

“We came together from a wide array of backgrounds and perspectives and committed ourselves to examining attorney licensure in Washington through a race-equity lens,” Minneti said. “Our study revealed glaring deficiencies in the licensure process that had a disparate impact on bar candidates from communities of color. The licensure reform measures we recommended to the Washington State Supreme Court directly address the deficiencies.”

The public now has 90 days to comment on the task force’s recommendations, after which the task force will study them, make possible modifications to the recommendations, and then present a final draft to the court.

In addition to Varona, Minneti, and Williams-Ruth, other members with Seattle U Law ties include Efrain Hudnell ’20, a deputy prosecutor at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and Kameron Powell ’23, a recent Seattle U Law graduate who passed the bar over the summer

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