Judging the Bar: A Closer Look at Racial Bias in Legal Licensing

By: Gabriela Wells

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

The bar exam is the final hurdle one must take to become a licensed attorney. The examination expands over a two-day period, one day consists solely of  200 standardized multiple choice questions, and the second day consists entirely of essays from a broad range of subject matter. What is the point of this exam? Why is it so important yet so difficult to pass? Questions like these have hounded law students for years.

It is no surprise that the implementation of the Bar exam occurred after an influx of minorities began aspiring to enter the legal profession. During the Civil Rights Era, minorities were thrown the curve ball of literacy tests to exercise their constitutional right to vote. In the modern era, the Bar exam is just another hurdle thrown by the white man. Although the Bar exam must be taken by all wishing to become a licensed attorney, it disproportionately affects black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) compared to their white counterparts. One would think the three years it takes to complete law school as a full-time student in combination with clerkships, clinics, and pro-bono opportunities would qualify any graduate to be prepared to practice law. However, the Bar exam has the power to either nullify or enhance these experiences.

On its face, the Bar exam is marketed as the last step to joining the prestigious and exclusive club that is the legal field. The final yet most intense trauma bonding mechanism  meant to connect each barred attorney to the next. In reality, the Bar exam has no functional application to practicing attorneys. This test is less about proving one’s mastery over the law and more about protecting the “pure Anglo-saxon race.” This “rite of passage” is meant to hinder Black and Brown bodies from “diluting” the legal field. From its financial aspects, to its time commitment, to the language used in the exam itself; the Bar exam promulgates a de facto racist institution. The United States depends on lawyers to interpret the law in an equal and just way, yet those who truly understand what it means to be oppressed and thus advocate against such disparities are denied the opportunity due to racists hurdles  such as the Bar exam.

Every time a BIPOC attorney is confused as the defendant while in court, is asked (or in some instances forced) to show their Bar card to prove their status while entering the court house, or simply accused of being the “help,” further supports the claim that the legal field is moving at the pace of a turtle compared to other professional fields. In 2022, 4.5% of attorneys are Black, 5.5 % Asian, 5.8% are Hispanic, and 81% white. Firms claim they do not hire minorities due to the limited or non-existent applicant pool, yet fail to question why the pool is so diluted. Is it because minority attorneys are not applying? Or is it because they are not allowed to prove their competency due to a test rooted in white supremacy?

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