What adoption of the Uniform Bar Examination means for Pennsylvania attorneys

April 23, 2021
President’s Message By Elizabeth Hughes

You might be aware that Pennsylvania has decided to adopt the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE). The Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners (PABLE) announced in February that the UBE will be implemented beginning with the administration of the July 2022 Bar Exam. So, what does that mean for those taking the exam, as well as employers hiring new attorneys?

The current Pennsylvania Bar Exam consists of testing over two days, including a Performance Test (PT), which tests applicants on a real-world legal issue. The PT simulates a review of a legal file and requires the test taker to provide written advice to a fictional client based upon the information in the file. That question is followed by six essays, employing Pennsylvania law where applicable and these essays may cover several subjects in a single question. Day two of the bar exam consists of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which is the multiple-choice portion of the bar examination, which is prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The UBE will be prepared by the NCBE and will consist of two Performance Tests on the first day of the exam, followed by six 30-minute essays which will cover only one to two subjects in each essay. The MBE portion will be administered on day two. Jurisdictions administering the UBE may add state-specific testing, as New York does, however Pennsylvania will not be adding this component. Under the proposed rules now available for comment, successful candidates for admission to practice in Pennsylvania will still need a minimum passing score of 272.

Proponents point out numerous benefits to both exam takers and employers in transitioning to the UBE. I spoke with Rob Wible, the Director of Academic Success and Bar Exam Services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, for some additional insight into the benefits and changes that the UBE will bring.

“This is a big change,” said Wible, “as now you can take just one exam and be able to immediately transfer your score to other jurisdictions. Think about employers who have offices in multiple jurisdictions and are hiring new lawyers. Previously, the lawyer might have had to sit for multiple bar exams, the employer had to pay for these multiple exams and had to wait sometimes for months for that lawyer to be able to practice in another jurisdiction.”

There are currently 39 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have adopted the UBE, including all the states that are contiguous to Pennsylvania, except Delaware. This is a huge benefit to those firms that are close to the border of other states and practice regularly in nearby jurisdictions, like Ohio and West Virginia in the western part of the state and New York and New Jersey in the eastern part of the state. The UBE also provides a clear significant benefit to those firms that have multiple offices across the nation.

Once a candidate for admission takes the UBE in any jurisdiction that offers it, that candidate may then transfer that score to another UBE jurisdiction. Each UBE jurisdiction sets their own requirements as to the minimum passing score and the time frame within which the test scores will be accepted. The scores and the time limits vary from state to state, with Pennsylvania adopting a 30-month window for acceptance of valid scores and some states accepting scores for as long as up to 60 months after the applicant has taken the UBE. The minimum passing scores currently range from 260 to 280, depending on the jurisdiction. The NCBE states that “the UBE is designed to test knowledge and skills that every lawyer should be able to demonstrate prior to becoming licensed to practice law. It results in a portable score that can be used to apply for admission in other UBE jurisdictions.” The applicant must meet all other requirements for admission in the specific jurisdiction, such as character and fitness requirements.

The adoption of the UBE offers flexibility for families as well. Consider the example where a spouse or partner is transferred or must look out of state for work. The lawyer spouse is often constrained by where they are admitted to practice and, once in the new jurisdiction, must either wait until the administration of the next bar exam or hope that they are able to gain admittance through reciprocity if eligible. It can often be like starting from scratch in these instances and can cause a financial burden on families who have no other choice but to relocate. Currently, the options would include spending time and money taking another bar exam or finding work that does not require a license to practice law.

The UBE can offer some relief for this, particularly early in an attorney’s career, where they often have not been in practice long enough to waive into another jurisdiction. As Wible stated, “the UBE is beneficial when one spouse or partner is waiting to hear about work in multiple jurisdictions or is applying to residency programs or graduate programs. Now the lawyer in this instance has options they didn’t have before to seek immediate employment in multiple jurisdictions.”

Despite the flexibility that this offers for applicants, the UBE is not without its criticisms. There are some critics who express concerns about the lack of testing on state specific law and believe that this could leave lawyers unprepared to effectively represent clients. There are also concerns that something designed to simplify the process of admission into various jurisdictions could end up as even more complicated, as jurisdictions are free to add their own state specific testing requirements for admission. States are also free to set their own fees to have scores transferred, which could add significant costs to the fees already paid to sit for the exam.

Either way, the UBE is coming to Pennsylvania. The PABLE is currently proposing an amendment to Pa.B.A.R. 206 to revise the requirements for admission. This is currently in the comment phase. For more information on the Uniform Bar Exam, visit the PABLE website or the NCBE website. The link for information regarding the rule and submitting comments can be found at pabarexam.org/pdf/Pa._Bulletin_Notice.pdf.