Attorney General Grant Woods has a grudge against the bar exam and, if he carries through on his plan to see it abolished for in-state law graduates, the Arizona Bar itself may have a grudge against him.

Woods hated the test when he took it in 1979 after graduating from Arizona State University's College of Law ("I slipped through," he quips about the exam), and he hates it now.

Only now he is in a position to do something about it.
Writing to Arizona Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon Jr. and the deans of the state's two law schools, the newly installed attorney general has called for an end to the dreaded exam--an exam he criticizes for keeping good law students from becoming lawyers and for creating an entire industry of bar-review courses.

Under Woods' proposal, graduates from the ASU and University of Arizona law schools would skip the test. Law grads coming in from out of state would still be required to take an exam.

Woods is not alone in his criticism. Across the country, lawyers have argued that the exam serves no purpose. They consider three years of law school an ample screening process and say the exam is a dehumanizing, arbitrarily graded, time-and-money-consuming assault aimed at keeping the ranks of lawyers thinner and the competition low.

But the exam is a secure part of status quo in the Arizona Bar, and one lawyer who chaired the state Supreme Court's committee overseeing the exams says Woods can expect a strong and negative reaction from his fellow lawyers.

Lake Havasu lawyer Dennis R. Malm calls the bar exam an "absolute necessity" and says its abolition would result in "substandard legal service."

"There'd be people practicing law who have no business practicing law," argues Malm.

He also questions the law schools' support for Woods' idea.
Deans at the two schools have responded favorably to the idea. And why shouldn't they? In February 1990, only one third of the ASU graduates taking the exam for the first time passed. Fifty-three percent of their UofA counterparts failed.

Such percentages, says Malm, raise hard questions about the quality of the two schools. Malm, who chaired the court's exam panel until last fall, says abolishing the bar exam would "eliminate the possibility of embarrassment" for the schools. "The ultimate measuring stick on the performance of a law school is probably how they have played in the bar [exam]," says Malm.

The way Malm explains it, just about anyone can muddle through law school. Exams are given on one subject at a time and all the student does is stay up for two days, master the course material and spit it out the next morning.

The bar exam, says Malm, is a more comprehensive test.
State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman, although he claims no opinion on the bar exam question, agrees with Malm's approach. "The law is not isolated bits of knowledge," says Feldman. "It's a whole."

But does the exam keep those people from practicing law or simply delay their entry to the field? There is no limit on the number of times an applicant can take the test in Arizona, and nearly 100 percent pass a bar exam eventually, even if they have to go to a rural state like Montana, where the passage rate hits the high 90s.

Montana was one of a few states, including Mississippi and West Virginia, where a bar exam was not required. Graduates from law schools in those states enjoyed a "diploma privilege" allowing them admission to the bar without an exam.

But those states have abandoned the idea, leaving Wisconsin as the only state with diploma privilege. It's been that way since the 1930s, and Wisconsin Bar Association president John Decker says the only people harping to change it are graduates from out-of-state law schools who resent taking a test their partners were allowed to skip.

Phoenix attorney and state regent Andy Hurwitz predicts that a no-exam system in Arizona would garner the same sort of animosity from out-of-state applicants. Graduates from Harvard and Stanford would have a tough time justifying the time and expense of a bar exam when UofA and ASU law grads could skip on through. That sort of resentment might make recruiting top graduates a tough job for the big firms, says Hurwitz.

A no-exam system might attract subpar students to the state, says Malm, but Decker points out that the vast majority of law school graduates leaving Wisconsin pass the bar exam wherever they end up.

UofA law professor Ted Schneyer, who taught at the University of Wisconsin for fourteen years before moving to Tucson, says the only significant difference between UW grads and UofA grads are their tans. A Harvard graduate who passed the bar in California, Schneyer has worked in both systems--and he prefers Wisconsin's. Bar applicants who pass aren't better lawyers, Schneyer says. "It's just that they can cram a little more information into their heads." The bar exam, he adds, is simply "a very blunt instrument for measuring competence."

So what does the exam accomplish? It keeps law school grads out of competition. Schneyer, for one, doesn't think that's a conscious thing, saying, "I don't think the examiners' board is getting together and saying, `Hey, we have too much competition in this state, so let's flunk as many people as possible.'"

But he does point out that examiners' boards are typically populated by "small-town lawyers" and private- practice attorneys who have the most to lose as the Bar gets more and more crowded.

Malm calls such claims a "fallback cheap-shot argument" and a "direct slap in the face to the [Arizona Supreme Court] justices."

And as Malm says, a slap in the face to the Bar as well.
It is one of the only points where Schneyer and Malm would agree. The Bar, says Schneyer, is likely to oppose Woods' proposal. And the Arizona Supreme Court tends to listen to the Bar. He predicts, "It won't get a very full hearing on the state Supreme Court."

Schneyer may be right. After all, Justice Feldman says, "I don't think we're going to jump into anything."

But Woods says he is not worried about making enemies.
"Why are people making it tougher and tougher to practice law?" says Woods. "That's definitely not a function of the Bar."

Then, in his best sarcastic tone, Woods adds, "And I know Arizona's Bar would agree with me."

Why would Woods risk their wrath?
The attorney general says he has a "lot of friends" who stumbled at the bar. Indeed, Woods' law school roommate and fellow political wunderkind Fred Duval (an ex-aide to Bruce Babbitt) visited the testing room three times before passing.

"I'm sure most of those people would be just as good a lawyer as those who passed," says Woods.

But while most lawyers who pass forget their frustrations, adopting an "I had to do it, so should everybody else" attitude, Woods carries the grudge.

"When you're growing up, there are things that are important to you," he says, "and later you forget those concerns. What's important to you in high school is not so important a few years later in college. I promised myself I will try to remember how I felt, because there are a lot of people who are facing those problems."

And the bar exam is way up on Woods' list of youthful frustrations.

"There'd be people practicing law who have no business practicing law," argues Dennis Malm.

UofA professor Ted Schneyer calls the bar exam simply "a very blunt instrument for measuring competence.

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Richard Polito