Uniform Bar Exam has pros and cons for R.I.

Recent adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam in Rhode Island has pros and cons for the local legal profession, say educators and partners at law firms.

UBE scores are portable, meaning recent law school graduates can use the grade they earn to apply for work in any of 30 jurisdictions that accept the exam. The only remaining local rule relates to the minimum grade accepted in individual jurisdictions.

“For law firms looking to recruit, this opens up the pool,” explained Roger Williams University School of Law Dean Michael J. Yelnosky.

One firm that could benefit is Locke Lord LLP. Christopher D. Graham, partner in charge of the local office, believes the UBE is a positive move for the industry.

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“Anything Rhode Island can do to make itself not an outlier is a good thing,” he said.

The UBE, argued Graham, “provides a more secure approach” to attract mid-career lawyers Locke Lord has long desired to add to its team. The challenge in recruiting what Graham called “seasoned” attorneys and “mid-level associates with solid training” was in the Rhode Island Bar Association’s requirement that lawyers looking to practice in-state pass its bar exam.

“If you’re telling [prospective attorneys] they have to take a bar exam 10, 15, 20 years out of law school,” said Graham, “you can’t turn anybody off much easier than that.”

The flexibility of the UBE nullifies that hurdle, added Linda Rekas Sloan, RIBAR president. With Rhode Island’s June adoption of the UBE, all of New England is signed on to the measure. Adoption began in 2011 with Missouri and North Dakota, explained Yelnosky, and has “spread pretty rapidly” since.

The flip side, he said, is Rhode Island-educated law students may no longer be compelled to launch their careers here given the UBE’s flexibility.

Calling the state “[not] a magnet for lawyers,” he believes the UBE “is more likely to reduce the number of lawyers in Rhode Island than increase it.”

While David A. Wollin, Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners chair and a Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP partner, said the board “unanimously” suggested adoption, he’s wary of counting its impact months before the first administration of the exam in February. In fact, he added, UBE impact on Massachusetts has yet to be determined as its first administration is in July.

He feels “applicants who want to stay in Rhode Island will stay, and those who take it elsewhere and get a score high enough to pass [here] and are interested in the Northeast” will apply.

Nationally, per the American Bar Association, UBE opposition centers around loss of examination of local law knowledge. Wollin, reiterating the board’s unanimous decision, said that “for now” the board of examiners didn’t find that aspect of the exam necessary.

Agreeing, Graham said, “I don’t see the benefits of quirky little laws in Rhode Island.” Clients prefer attorneys “conversant in … many jurisdictions,” he added.