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Thu 17 Mar, 2016 # Press

How About that Uniform Bar Exam?

“Hey, Florida, How About That Uniform Bar Exam”, HSMc Founding Partner Franklin Harrison quoted in the latest issue of Daily Business Review.

Julie Kay, Daily Business Review

March 9, 2016 | 

The Florida Bar has formed a new committee that will study adoption of a national uniform bar exam or drastically slashing the number of subjects covered by the state exam.

The issue is reviving thoughts of the recent firestorm over a failed proposal to adopt reciprocity, which would have opened the door to lawyers from other states without requiring them to pass the Florida bar exam.

The special committee on legal education, formed in January by Florida Bar president Ramon Abadin and other bar leaders is comprised of law school deans, Florida Supreme Court justices, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners and other attorneys.

The committee was tasked with looking at whether the state exam should be changed or abandoned and whether law students serving as certified legal interns should have to take part of the state exam.

Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis, in an interview with the Daily Business Review, voiced strong objections to adopting a uniform bar exam or altering the state bar exam. He sits on the committee.

“Florida law has been altered virtually every year by statutes and cases that create an entire body of law,” he said. “You can’t do an automobile case if you do not know our statutes. You cannot do a divorce case if you don’t know our statutes. You can’t do a slip-and-fall case if you don’t know our statutes. You can’t do any civil case if you don’t know our statutes.”

Lewis is not concerned about lawyers flooding Florida but about people hiring capable lawyers.

“I’m concerned about protecting Joe Smith and Mary Jones, who have no understanding of the law and are not wheeler-dealers,” he said. “If lawyers want to bring upon themselves another 100,000 lawyers, that’s not my concern.”

Lewis and others grew concerned after emails circulated among attorneys saying the Florida Bar board of governors planned to vote on the uniform bar exam at its meeting Friday. Bar leaders said a discussion is planned but no vote.

“This is back-door reciprocity,” Lewis said. While not mentioning Abadin by name, Lewis said, “We’ve had some good bar leaders, but then we happen to run into people who want to spring things on people at the last minute. To say we should at least discuss the issue — well, there are some things that are so wrong that you don’t need to have discussion. Whether or not to require minimum competence of lawyers, that’s not a discussion that is necessary.”

A statement from Abadin, a partner with Sedgwick in Miami, said, the “bar is looking at ways to adapt the bar exam in a manner consistent with the needs of our practicing attorneys and the citizens we serve. This exploration has participation from all 12 deans of Florida’s law schools” and the Florida Supreme Court. Options range “from amending the subjects covered to amending the format in which it is given—such as including a performance test or aligning with testing approaches from other states.”

Florida Bar president-elect William Schifino of Burr & Forman in Tampa said the creation of the committee was in part based on the lessons learned from the reciprocity debate. Still, he was stunned by emails warning of an impending “sneak vote” on the subject.

“We have nothing keyed up for this March meeting,” he said. “Boy, did someone have wrong information. Our goal is to now have buy-in from everyone — the Supreme Court, the deans, the bar and the Board of Bar Examiners. We want to look at things in a slow, methodical way.”

Better to Prepare

Law deans have been pushing for test changes or adoption of the uniform exam for a long time. They complain they are forced to spend countless hours preparing students to pass a 27-part exam that includes subjects they may never use in their careers rather than allowing students to work at externships and get real-life training. Currently, 20 states use the uniform exam.

“For us, the real priority is to reduce the number of subjects on the bar exam,” said Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad law dean Jon Garon. “The breadth of subjects doesn’t improve the students’ practice readiness. It just forces us to teach more subjects at a less in-depth level. The uniform bar exam is a more effective scope with 13 subjects.”

Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, Stetson University law dean, agrees.

“My view is we do need a change in the bar exam in Florida,” he said. “The number of credit hours students use to take courses that are covered by the bar exam meets or exceeds the number of hours required for graduation. Adopting the uniform bar exam or reducing the number of subjects on the Florida Bar exam would permit students to be able to utilize their third year to better prepare for the marketplace.”

Franklin Harrison, a Panama City lawyer and former chair of the Board of Bar Examiners, is a proponent of the uniform exam.

“I do believe it’s a good method for admitting lawyers,” he said. “Looking at the market for young lawyers, which is pretty bad, and looking at the extreme debt they have coming out of law school, I feel that instead of spending money taking multiple bar exams, they should be able to take the uniform bar exam.”

A small component testing knowledge of Florida law could be added to the exam, he added.