November 2021

Time to examine the bar exam

By Jennifer Thompson

Like most of the world, for the past 18 months MSBA members have had to make choices in all parts of their lives. 

  • How do I expend my resources during the pandemic? 
  • What things are necessities? 
  • What things might not be necessities, but are still worth the money? 
  • What things are still worth the money even when I am unable to use or do not need to use some of the benefits? 

Heading into the second year of the pandemic, I personally thought about the things on which I was still choosing to spend my money, including several groups and organizations that, throughout the pandemic, I derived very little benefit from because of shutdowns. Why was that? Two reasons, primarily: 1) because these groups spoke to important causes; and 2) because these groups were organizations that needed to exist post-pandemic. They stood for values and did work that the world needed to have in it. 

I think that logic holds true for the MSBA also. Yes, the MSBA offers many tangible things—free or low-cost CLEs for members, a free legal research subscription, discounts with law practice partners—but the MSBA offers much more, and these other, less tangible things are perhaps the more important call to MSBA membership in the post-pandemic world. Case in point: The MSBA is engaging in strategic, innovative, and collaborative work on significant issues such as attorney licensing and the bar examination.

Last year, after a group of recent law school graduates requested that the MSBA Council examine the state of the bar exam and its role in the admission of new lawyers in Minnesota, it became clear to MSBA leadership that further efforts to study the issue were necessary. This is not an issue that Minnesota is alone in reviewing. There is a national movement to reconsider the bar exam itself, along with the greater question of how attorneys become licensed. 

The MSBA Council and other leaders worked throughout the last bar year to identify the best process for undertaking a study of these issues. We heard repeatedly that an endeavor of this nature requires significant resources and would be best undertaken with multiple stakeholders at the table. As a result, the MSBA, through a resolution adopted by its Assembly in April 2021, determined that the best approach to fully study this topic would be to seek a court-appointed task force.

That same month, the MSBA was notified by the Board of Law Examiners (BLE) that it was also undertaking a study of the bar exam. It appears that the MSBA and the BLE share a belief that it’s time for Minnesota to examine how lawyers in the state are admitted to the profession. The MSBA supports BLE’s efforts and will continue to work with the BLE to help ensure that its study is successful. That said, however, the MSBA believes there remain certain critical distinctions between how the BLE proposes to conduct its examination and the MSBA’s request for a task force. Other states have used broad-based task forces to conduct a comprehensive review of bar licensing alternatives and to include diverse and wide-ranging stakeholders in the decision-making process. We strongly believe Minnesota should follow a similar track. 

The MSBA petition requests a separate task force to address these diversity and scope concerns. If the Supreme Court determines that a separate task force is not necessary because of the work it expects to be performed by the BLE, the petition requests that the Court address the task force request by temporarily expanding the membership of the BLE to increase its diversity and ensure representation of all stakeholders. 

The MSBA is collaborating with numerous partners—affinity and district bar associations and law school representatives, to name a few—in its efforts relating to the petition. Notably, the MSBA’s petition is joined and supported by: 

  • Hennepin County Bar Association
  • Ramsey County Bar Association
  • Anthony Niedwiecki, President and Dean of Mitchell Hamline School of Law
  • Minnesota Women Lawyers
  • Minnesota Lavender Bar Association
  • Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers
  • Minnesota Asian Pacific American Bar Association
  • Minnesota American Indian Bar Association
  • Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association
  • Somali American Bar Association
  • Hmong American Bar Association

The petition was filed October 6, 2021, as I was writing this column. It is possible that by the time of publication, there will  be further developments. The MSBA will use its weekly Legal News Digest and other channels to keep members apprised of any such developments.

The MSBA is finding strategic ways to innovate and think bigger than the box—to put a fresh lens on long-lasting issues. This is how the MSBA strives to lead. And, I believe, a sometimes-overlooked benefit of membership. This type of work is what makes membership in the MSBA at least as compelling as the more tangible benefits. As we all emerge from the pandemic with more focus on supporting the organizations whose work must persist, I hope the attorneys of Minnesota continue to appreciate that the MSBA is one of those organizations that our profession needs on the other side of the pandemic and long thereafter. 

JENNIFER THOMPSON is a founding partner of the Edina construction law firm Thompson Tarasek Lee-O’Halloran PLLC. She has also served on the Minnesota Lawyer Mutual Insurance Company board of directors since 2019. 
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