The Bar Exam for a Lawyer who Paused

April 24, 2020 by

Another Glass Ceiling

After I paused my legal career to raise three children, I faced hurdles when I tried to re-enter the workforce. I lacked a network and opportunities and faced the implicit bias that I was too old and had lost my edge. Coupled with self-doubt, returning to the legal world was daunting. Still, the most significant obstacle to overcome was the fact that I was licensed in New Mexico and living in North Carolina.

Many state bar organizations provide reciprocity, which allows an attorney licensed in another jurisdiction to waive into the bar without having to repeat the bar examination. However, every state that provides comity requires the applicant to have practiced law for a certain number of years within the last several years.

For instance, in North Carolina, the applicant must be able to substantiate engagement in the practice of law for at least four of the past six years. If the last few or more years have been devoted to child-rearing, a license to practice is only attainable by taking the entire bar examination again. I passed the exam the second time around, but the entire exercise caused me to ponder the issues that women, like me, confront when trying to restart a career.

A recent ABA Journal article with a real-time discussion about emergency accommodations for recent law grads who may not be able to take the bar in July due to COVID-19, brought out a debate on how well bar examinations predict lawyer readiness and competence. Franklyn M. Gimbel, a Milwaukee attorney who has been practicing law for over 60 years, called the notion that bar examinations ensure competency “baloney.”

Still, I have no issue with the state bar examiners’ right to set forth certain requirements for the privilege to practice law within their state and to ensure that individuals licensed should meet minimum competency standards. I merely submit that consideration should be given to a more flexible approach, that individual circumstances be taken into account, and that a decision to devote years to child-rearing should not preclude a surmountable road back to the workforce. In fact,40% of American mothershave, at some point in their lives, reduced their hours or taken time off to care for a child or family member and 27% have left the workforce entirely.

When this latter cohort — which likely contains educated, white collar women who have the privilege of choosing not to work — is ready to return, they initially seek the well-paying, professional career tracks they abandoned. However, with an extended career gap on their resume, this strategy can be a difficult proposition.

After all, practicing a certain amount of time in the previous few years is no guarantee of an individual’s competency. Surely there must be an alternative to this requirement that would protect the profession’s integrity and the public from incompetent representation, but that is less discriminatory in nature.

Any policy or requirement that disproportionally affects women who are trying to re-enter the workforce is not keeping pace with the current climate and changing views towards the acceptance of an unconventional career path. A license may not be a stumbling block in all industries for those trying to restart a career, but other impediments may exist, such as an implicit bias of ageism and perceived loss of skills.

Likewise, the challenges are not confined to women returning to work. Women who continued to work while starting a family may have faced a lack of employer support, demanding schedules, and unpaid parental leave.

While our career paths are unique, the obstacles that we as women face tend to be universal. We need to push aside the Mommy Wars and band together in our quest for more inclusive policies and understanding that there is more than one glass ceiling to be shattered.

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About the Author

Heather FullerAttorney

Heather Fuller, a seasoned litigator with extensive federal experience, has handled cases in courts across the United States.  Her innovative approach to each case, coupled with her sound judgment and ability to solve complex problems, makes her a strong advocate for her client.

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