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A history-making vote changes attorney licensure in Oregon

by Jessica Rotter,

Willamette University & Oregon State Capitol

For nearly four years, Willamette Law has been at the forefront of regional and national conversations about attorney licensure reform. On November 7, 2023, the Oregon Supreme Court, in a historic vote, unanimously approved a new pathway to attorney licensure in addition to the traditional bar exam. The new Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination (SPPE) now enables the Oregon bar to admit law school graduates to practice following an assessment of their demonstrated ability to practice law.  Upon successful completion of 675 hours of practice under the supervision of an experienced attorney – the time most people spend studying for the bar exam – candidates for licensure will submit a portfolio of work to the Board of Bar Examiners for an independent evaluation of their proficiency. 

This significant shift in approach to attorney licensure is the culmination of years of work by the Willamette Law community, aligning closely with the school’s approach to educating practice-ready lawyers. Willamette Law Dean Brian Gallini has been an advocate for a more equitable and skills-focused approach to attorney licensure since he began his tenure at the law school. Shortly after the Oregon Supreme Court’s historic vote to grant emergency diploma privilege to the Class of 2020 at the height of the pandemic, members of the legal community raised questions about whether Oregon should more broadly consider a new approach to licensure.  

Gallini reflected, “it’s energizing to think back on those conversations and now stand at the precipice of meaningful attorney licensure reform designed to strengthen access to justice and promote equity while at the same time bolstering consumer protection.”

The impact of SPPE on both the legal profession and the law school cannot be overstated. Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives & Professor of Law David Friedman shares that “for the legal profession, this is a significant advancement in that it aligns licensure criteria with teaching and measuring the skills that established lawyers tell us that new lawyers need. The bar exam became a convenient way to test and evaluate aspiring lawyers en masse, but over time, the exam began to really depart from testing the knowledge and skills that new lawyers need.” The addition of this new pathway to licensure reaffirms what Friedman has long believed: “skills matter.”  This step will further motivate law schools to  teach students the skills they will need to effectively serve clients.

As for how this shift may change the curriculum at Willamette law, Friedman says “we have a mandate and more room to teach experiential courses. In other words, we will provide both the intellectual foundation and the skill foundation for new lawyers, moving us closer to the same way that other professions train and test their newest members.” 

The Support of Alumni

Support from the Willamette Law alumni community alongside members of the local bar has been critically important in the approval of SPPE. From serving as sounding boards, to engaging in multiple rounds of public comment, the Willamette Law alumni community has helped to make this tremendous shift in licensure a reality. Lucy Jensen MBA/JD’13, member of the Law Leadership Cabinet, chose to support Willamette Law’s role in making SPPE a reality in part because she felt that the bar exam did not accurately and comprehensively assess her abilities as a practicing lawyer. She hopes that the SPPE will break down barriers and increase access to the legal profession. 

For many, the cost of the current bar exam – alongside the need to defer income and take time off from work to study – has been a barrier to becoming a licensed member of the legal profession. Now, Jensen says, “SPPE will be a much more meaningful and helpful measure of law graduates’ performance. It will, I believe, be a more accurate indicator of what graduates have learned about the actual practice of law.” She hopes that this new pathway to licensure will open the door for individuals from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to consider the legal profession with the end goal of creating a more diverse and well-rounded bar. 

“We attorneys constantly learn from one another and, collectively, this will broaden our approach to our practice of law, expand our skill set, and open our perspectives to better understand our clients and to more effectively represent them,” Jensen says. 

Looking to the Future

Now, as the law school thinks ahead to how it will adapt both its curriculum and its career planning and development services, Willamette Law’s tight-knit alumni community will prove even more critical to new graduates’ success. The school is assembling a roster of interested alumni to ensure that there are supervising attorneys to support prospective licensees in every area of law, and in all areas of the state. Alumni have already volunteered to serve as Supervising Attorneys. Alongside other well-established opportunities for mentorship, including the attorney-mentor program, alumni have been a cornerstone of preparing students to become practice-ready lawyers, something that will be all the more important with SPPE. 

For his part, Friedman sees the potential for SPPE to encourage more talented and aspiring lawyers to seek admission to Oregon’s law schools because, in addition to this new pathway to licensure, the Oregon Bar is showing that they want new lawyers who are ready to practice and practice quickly. He says, “Oregon has a serious need for new lawyers of all kinds. Every step taken in the direction of making Oregon a great place to launch a meaningful legal career will take us a step closer toward better serving the public.”

As Willamette Law celebrates this historic milestone, faculty and staff are already thinking about how best to support students who choose to pursue this pathway. In particular, the law school is prepared to help prospective SPPE candidates who have already graduated or are students in their final year of law school, but have not fulfilled the program’s curricular requirements. In particular, the recent launch of the JD for Life program ensures that Willamette Law graduates have the opportunity to return to the law school and take law school courses for academic credit. This new and unique program both supports the school’s goal of encouraging life-long learning while also allowing all students to have an equal opportunity to pursue SPPE. 

Already a leader in the learn-by-doing space, Willamette Law remains committed to educating practice-ready lawyers and leaders who will go on to serve their communities and the legal profession. This historic moment for the state of Oregon could not have been possible without the support of the school’s dedicated community. 

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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