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Oregon takes a step forward in alternative licensure of attorneys

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute

Oregon has become the next U.S. state to consider establishing alternative pathways to licensure for attorneys as its State Supreme Court weighs these options

In early July, the Oregon State Supreme Court took a major step in providing potential new ways to gain licensure as an attorney in the state. More specifically, it held a public hearing to consider a Oregon State Bar Board of Bar Examiners proposals to add two new ways to gain attorney licensure in the state: i) an experience-based learning pathway; and ii) a supervised practice pathway.

This move highlights an important step within the U.S. because another state is seriously considering expanding licensure options for attorneys.

Currently, Oregon participates in the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) as its primary approach to licensure. The addition of the experiential learning and the supervised practice pathway would offer two more methods with all three ensuring specific competencies are met to practice law in the state. According to the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners’ Alternatives to Exam Task Force report, these two other ways to licensure as described, are:

      • The experiential program would require admission applicants to complete two years of law school and then would provide a capstone portfolio for a certification of competencies by the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners. This model most closely resembles a similar program in New Hampshire — the Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.
      • The supervised practice path would require each applicant to log 1,000 to 1,500 hours of supervised practice and require each applicant to complete non-privileged work products for review by the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners. It resembles Utah’s supervised practice program, which the state implemented during the pandemic in 2020; and Canada’s “articling” requirements, which mandates that each individual completes a 9-to-12-month apprenticeship under another licensed lawyer.

Benefits of additional models

The Alternatives to Exam Task Force in Oregon analyzed two key questions around consumer protection and equity when recommending these two new methods of licensure. To analyze whether or not each option protected consumers, it used the Building Blocks of Minimum Competence core competencies, which were created by the Institute of the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) and published in October 2020.

On the equity front, the Task Force sought to decrease the access-to-justice gap and ensure that applicants to the bar had a fair opportunity to demonstrate their competence to practice law.

Adoption of additional approaches to licensure would continue to transform both legal education and bar admission to address the gap between education and law practice. More specifically:

      • The experiential method analyzes each applicants’ ability to perform fundamental types of legal work through a portfolio with multiple rounds of feedback from volunteers from the Oregon Bar Examiners. This process also ensures that every person admitted to practice under this model has the ability to spot substantive legal issues, gather relevant information, and craft a compelling written and oral argument to serve clients well.
      • Having the supervised practice as an option provides an alternative path to applicants who could not commit to a course of experiential learning in law school or who come from out-of-state law schools. In addition, this pathway has the potential to attract applicants from under-represented backgrounds inside and out of state. In a year or less, an applicant from out of state could be licensed to practice law under the supervisory mentor.

Though each method has positive aspects and drawbacks, the collective offering of the UBE, both the experiential program and the supervised practice models address the typical concerns of consumer protection and equity.

One of the major constraints around reforming methods of licensure is based on current limitations around resources necessary for additional licensure options and the appetite for evolution within individual states’ bar examiners. Hopefully, as states like Oregon, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Vermont continue to analyze different options on bar licensures of attorneys, it will lead to other states following suit. Indeed, asking the question on the possibility of such reform is the first step.

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