Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Law schools are preparing for new bar exam

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//November 3, 2023//

Deposit Photo

Law schools are preparing for new bar exam

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//November 3, 2023//

Listen to this article

By Dick Dahl

Big changes are on the horizon for bar exams in 2026, and Minnesota law schools are beginning to make plans for how they might adapt.

Nearly all lawyers are familiar with the current standard test, which has existed for decades and focuses largely on rote memorization. For years, critics have said this emphasis is wrong. They argue that the legal profession — and society — would be better served if the exam paid more attention to testing graduates on lawyering skills than on their recall of law and legal principles.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which administers the bar exams in nearly every state, responded to the critics in 2018 with an announcement that it would begin development of a new exam called NextGen. The new exam, set to debut in July 2026 will “test a broad range of foundational lawyering skills,” including those needed in litigation and transactional legal practice, NCBE says.

Much is known about what NextGen will look like — it will take nine hours instead of the current 12, trim the number of legal subjects that may be tested, and place more emphasis on skills assessment — but much remains to be seen. Still, law schools are taking steps to prepare because, after all, this year’s 1Ls will likely be among the first cohort to take the test.

At the University of Minnesota Law School, interim dean William McGeveran recently assembled a working group to begin planning.

“We’re in the information-collecting stages of looking at potential places in our curriculum where it would be appropriate to integrate some NextGen features or some NextGen prep or question forms,” said Professor Kim Ronning, the school’s director of academic and bar success.

Ronning says the school is well constituted to make a curricular pivot toward the NextGen exam because it already has a significant “experiential curriculum” in the form of clinics, internships, legal writing, and research requirements. The school also requires a mandatory first-year “Law in Practice” class that introduces students to the actual practice of law.

Similarly, Debbie Shapiro, director of academic achievement and bar success at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, believes that school’s high rankings for experiential and practical training (from National Jurist magazine) place it in a good position.

“I think the reasons behind NextGen are really important,” she says, “so I’m excited because we always want to make sure that what we’re doing in training students will actually help them in practice.”

At Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Associate Professor Melissa Bezanson Shultz says the conversations are at very early stages. The school plans more formal discussions this winter about NextGen and its potential influence on curricula.

“We have lots of conversations, but we have to log hours before we can actually have action,” says Shultz, who handles bar preparation at the school. “We have to have the time to invest to allow people to get caught up, to think through things, to step outside themselves and think about what this exam looks like before we make those decisions.”

“It’s going to require an all-day event of a subset of faculty getting together with a huge whiteboard and trying to figure out ‘OK, how do we rethink it and what do we do?’”

Shultz applauds the direction that NextGen is taking because the current Uniform Bar Examination that most law-school grads must take is flawed.

Hundreds of aspiring lawyers line up for Minnesota’s bar exam in a 2016 photo
Hundreds of aspiring lawyers line up for Minnesota’s bar exam at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul in this July 26, 2016, file photo. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

“It’s ‘how much can you remember, how much can you regurgitate, how hard can you study?’ And you get to this six- to eight-week window where you are pre-bar exam after graduation, and they say you need to stop working in order to just focus on studying for the exam. So, the thinking is, if we could switch the bar exam so that it tests a more reasonable amount of material and really what students need to know, that would be helpful.”

University of Minnesota Law School Professor Carol Chomsky shares Shultz’s critical view of the existing law exam.

“The bar exam asks you to know the answer right away without looking it up,” she says. “But what lawyers do is they have a sense of a landscape of legal topics and issues and how to analyze problems that clients may have. And then they research and try to figure out what’s the law that affects this.

For the NextGen bar exam to be adopted in Minnesota, approval by the state Supreme Court is necessary and is expected. In June, the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners completed a two-year study on the bar exam for purposes of making a recommendation to the court. It recommended support for NextGen, but also suggested other possible alternative pathways to lawyer licensure. The court has not issued a decision.

One of the working groups in that study noted that while NextGen is an improvement on the existing bar exam, “it is still a standardized test. Lawyering abilities are difficult to measure in a standardized test.” A second working group recommended development of a curricular pathway that would create minimum competence standards to certify curricular and experiential pathways at each Minnesota law school. A third working group recommended a supervisory pathway in which graduates would work under the supervision of a licensed attorney and gain licensure by demonstrating competence.

Meanwhile, as law schools are beginning to think about how to prepare for the likelihood of NextGen, a new wrinkle surfaced on Oct. 25 when the NCBE announced that it was delaying the termination of the existing test, the Uniform Bar Examination. Initially, NCBE said the UBE would sunset in July 2027. NCBE has now pushed it back a year, meaning that the current test and NextGen could both be available to jurisdictions for two years.

That means state bar examiners and supreme courts will have another year to decide whether they want NextGen or stick with the status quo for one more year.

For law schools, the later sunset date creates more uncertainty.

“It leaves law schools wondering which students in their halls will be impacted and when,” says Mitchell Hamline’s Shultz.

She notes that BLE has asked the Supreme Court to adopt the NextGen exam sometime between its July 2026 launch date and the UBE’s July 2028 sunset date, but that no specific adoption date was adopted or even discussed.

According to Shultz, the extension makes it unlikely that Minnesota law schools have the certainty they need to begin making curricular changes before the close of the calendar year.

“Regardless of when Minnesota adopts the NextGen,” she adds, “the reality is that there will be a period of time (two years) when students in Minnesota law schools are preparing for different bar exams, depending on where they want to practice and when they graduate.”


What kind of stories do you want to read more of?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Legal News

See All Legal News

WLJ People

Sea all WLJ People

Opinion Digests