Iowa Grads Could Practice Law Before Bar

Iowa State Bar

Last year, the American Bar Association proposed sweeping reforms to help students reduce debt load and gain practical experience. Now, the State of Iowa could take those reforms even further.

The Des Moines Register reports that the Iowa State Bar Association is pushing a measure where law school graduates could practice law while they study for the bar. The measure, which is already in effect in Wisconsin, would only apply to students who plan to work in Iowa.

This move also comes on the heels of the University of Iowa College of Law slashing tuition by 16.4% to reverse declining enrollments and keep debt manageable.

“It Really Is Just Wasted Time”

The proposal is being partially driven by student debt. According to the ABA, the average student debt is $95,574 at the University of Iowa College of Law and $106,368 at Drake Law School. By allowing students to practice law during the 4 ½ months between graduation and the bar, students can save up to $29,000 in loans taken out to cover expenses during this study period.

Allan Vestal, dean of the Drake Law School, notes that this transition period is “just wasted time” where students could be earning a living. In Dean Vestal’s view, this proposal frees students to fan out to smaller communities in need of lawyers, where lower salaries could be offset by lower debt.

Guy Cook, a Des Moines trial lawyer and President of the Iowa State Bar Association, adds that 93.2 percent of Iowa law school grads passed the state bar on the first try from 2008-2013. Among those who failed, 62 percent passed on their second attempt or in another state. As a result, most grads are prepared to practice law upon graduation.

Despite fast-tracking the process, grads would still need to pass an ethics exam and background check, while taking a course on Iowa laws and court procedure.

‘Would You Go To A Doctor Who Hadn’t Been Tested?’

However, the bar association’s proposal has critics. Angela Campbell, a Des Moines criminal defense attorney who’s licensed in Iowa, Massachusetts, and New York, worries that the proposal will cheapen the value of an Iowa law license. And Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, wonders about the competence of graduates who practice without passing the bar: “I wouldn’t go to a physician that I didn’t feel like had been through a testing process. I don’t know why the public should feel any different about lawyers.”

A Conflict Between A Testing Service and The State Bar?

This skirmish may also reflect the nature of Iowa’s bar exam, which is mostly multiple-choice and doesn’t test on Iowa law or procedure. In Cook’s view, this proposal puts “more power back into the hands of the Iowa Supreme Court as opposed to some third-party testing service, so that the (court) decides what are the courses that a law student must successfully complete that would make that law student a competent lawyer in Iowa.” However, Moeser counters that general study areas, such as constitutional law and torts, are extremely valuable. And she wonders if the Iowa State Bar’s efforts expose “a curiously insular view at a time when law, if anything, is moving across state and national boundaries.”

As part of this proposal, the State of Iowa would also move to a uniform bar exam, which is used in 14 other states, including nearby Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota. By passing the Iowa bar, graduates could re-locate to those states without having to pass another bar exam.

A Graduate’s View: Practical Experience Key

So how do recent graduates view the proposal? Steve Neve, a West Des Moines family law attorney and 2012 graduate, took out a loan for “several thousand” dollars to cover his expenses while he studied for the bar.  Although the bar forced him to review three years of school, he believes that experience is more valuable than testing: “I don’t think [the bar] prepares you in any way to practice. You get out there, and you start practicing, and you realize how much you don’t know.”

Process Is Ongoing

The proposal has been unanimously approved by the Iowa State Bar Association’s Board of Governors. It will be reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court over the summer. If accepted, it will be sent for public comment before a final draft is submitted for approval.