California’s Potential Plan to Bypass the Bar Exam: A New Pathway to Becoming a Licensed Lawyer

October 19, 2023 by Anastasiia Ponomarova in California  Special Report  
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Soon You May Be Able to Bypass the Bar Exam

The State Bar of California is considering a groundbreaking change that could revolutionize the process of becoming a licensed lawyer in the state. In a unanimous decision, the State Bar’s Board of Trustees has voted to explore an alternative pathway that would allow law graduates to obtain their license without having to take the notoriously difficult California bar exam. This potential new program, known as the Portfolio Bar Exam, would offer a provisional license to candidates who would then work under the supervision of experienced attorneys for a period of four to six months. During this time, candidates would compile a portfolio of their work, which would be evaluated by the state bar. Those who meet the required standards would be granted full licensing without having to endure the traditional bar exam.

Need for Change

The proposal for the Portfolio Bar Exam stems from a desire to address several challenges and inequalities within the current system. One of the primary concerns is the high cost associated with preparing for the bar exam, which often falls disproportionately on historically disadvantaged groups, including first-generation graduates, women, and candidates of color. By providing an alternative pathway, the State Bar hopes to alleviate this financial burden and level the playing field for aspiring lawyers from diverse backgrounds.

Furthermore, the Portfolio Bar Exam aims to increase the representation of non-white attorneys in California. Research has consistently shown that Black and Hispanic examinees have lower pass rates compared to their white counterparts. By offering an alternative assessment method that focuses on practical experience and real-world skills, the State Bar hopes to create a more inclusive and diverse legal profession.

The Portfolio Bar Exam: A New Approach

The proposed Portfolio Bar Exam shares similarities with California’s Provisional License program, which was implemented temporarily during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the provisional license program, certain law graduates were allowed to practice law under supervision, either by skipping or delaying the bar exam. Building upon the success of this program, the Portfolio Bar Exam would provide a more permanent solution to the challenges faced by aspiring lawyers.

Similar alternative licensing programs already exist in other states. For example, Wisconsin allows graduates of the state’s two law schools to obtain their license without passing the bar exam. New Hampshire also offers a specialized curriculum that allows a select group of law students to bypass the bar. However, if implemented, California’s Portfolio Bar Exam would become the largest state to adopt such a program.

The Pathway to Implementation

While the Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote is a significant step forward, the implementation of the Portfolio Bar Exam is not yet guaranteed. The program would require the approval of the California Supreme Court, and the public will have the opportunity to provide comments on the proposal for a period of 30 days. This open feedback process ensures that all stakeholders have a chance to voice their opinions and concerns.

The Portfolio Bar Exam proposal emerged after the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of the Bar Exam, a joint effort between the California Supreme Court and the State Bar, was unable to reach a consensus on an alternative licensing pathway. In response, the State Bar’s board of trustees reconvened some commission members to develop this new proposal. The path to a final decision will depend on the feedback received during the public comment period and the subsequent review by the California Supreme Court.

Pros and Cons of the Portfolio Bar Exam

As with any significant change to the legal profession, there are both advantages and concerns associated with the Portfolio Bar Exam. Supporters of the proposal argue that it would reduce the financial burden of preparing for the bar exam, making the legal profession more accessible to aspiring lawyers from all backgrounds. It would also provide an opportunity for law graduates to gain practical experience and develop a portfolio of work, which could enhance their employability and competitiveness in the job market.

On the other hand, critics express concerns about maintaining the quality and standards of the legal profession. Some argue that the bar exam serves as a necessary gatekeeping mechanism, ensuring that licensed lawyers possess the necessary knowledge and skills to protect the public’s interests. There are also concerns about potential inconsistencies in evaluating portfolios and the potential for bias in the assessment process.

Potential Impacts on the Legal Profession

If California’s Portfolio Bar Exam becomes a reality, it would have significant implications for the legal profession in the state. One of the immediate effects would be a shift in the dynamics of legal education. Law schools may need to adapt their curricula to better prepare students for the practical aspects of the profession, focusing on skills that can be showcased in the portfolio.

The program would also open up new opportunities for aspiring lawyers interested in public interest work, public defense, and serving rural communities. By removing some of the barriers associated with the bar exam, more lawyers could be incentivized to pursue careers in these areas, addressing the access to justice gap that exists in many underserved communities.

Furthermore, the Portfolio Bar Exam could contribute to a more diverse and inclusive legal profession in California. By providing an alternative assessment method that values practical experience, the program could attract a broader range of candidates with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This increased diversity has the potential to enrich the legal profession and lead to more equitable outcomes for clients and society as a whole.


California’s potential move to bypass the bar exam with the introduction of the Portfolio Bar Exam marks a significant shift in the way lawyers are licensed in the state. The proposal aims to address the financial burden and inequalities associated with the traditional bar exam while promoting diversity and inclusivity within the legal profession. As the public comment period begins and the proposal makes its way through the approval process, it remains to be seen whether this alternative pathway will become a reality. Nonetheless, the discussions surrounding the Portfolio Bar Exam have sparked important conversations about the future of legal education and the profession as a whole.

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