The processes by which lawyers are licensed to practice law—and most specifically, the bar exam—have come under sharper focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions that already existed about the legitimacy and validity of the bar exam are being amplified as testing data and outcomes, including those for minority applicants, highlight problematic trends. But in order to create a better foundation for lawyer licensing and the bar exam, it is first necessary to have a clearer picture of the minimum competency lawyers need—and that the exam is supposed to test for—a definition that has not existed until now. New research from IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, in partnership with Professor Deborah Jones Merritt at The Ohio State University (OSU) Moritz College of Law, is set to be released this fall and will bring into focus what minimum competency ultimately entails.

The project, Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence, was funded by support from OSU and a $125,000 grant from AccessLex Institute, the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the betterment of legal education.

“The findings from this landmark study will be critical to defining an evidence-based definition of minimum competence, which will in turn be critical to ensuring the fairness, efficacy, and validity of the bar exam,” said Christopher P. ChapmanPresident and Chief Executive Officer at AccessLex Institute.

Since the project launched in June 2019, 50 focus groups have been held in 18 locations, including both urban and rural areas around the country. Forty-one of the focus groups were held with new lawyers, while nine were held with supervisors of new lawyers. Some specialized groups of new lawyers were comprised solely of women, people of color, or solo practitioners—assuring a more representative view of new lawyers’ experiences.

“The focus groups yielded rich insights into many facets of beginning a career in law, including the degree to which new lawyers rely on memory, how they interact with clients and spot issues, and the kinds of information most useful for avoiding mistakes as a new lawyer,” said Logan Cornett, Director of Research at IAALS. “By soliciting a wide range of viewpoints, we have identified twelve building blocks of minimum competence that regulators and bar examiners should use when assessing new lawyer applicants.”

The Building a Better Bar project will help shape the future of lawyer licensing in the United States, as well as inform efforts in legal education to align admissions, curriculums, and licensure.

“Given the upheaval caused by COVID-19 and other criticisms of the bar exam, we need a path forward to increase trust in lawyer licensing and the profession as a whole,” said Professor Merritt. “Real, meaningful changes are expected, and everyone is watching. Our findings will be key to creating an evidence-based licensing system.”


IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, is a national, independent research center dedicated to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system. Our mission is to forge innovative and practical solutions to problems within the American legal system.

About Deborah Jones Merritt

Deborah Jones Merritt is a Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University, as well as the John Deaver Drinko/Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law at the University’s Moritz College of Law. She holds courtesy appointments in the Sociology Department and two other departments. Merritt has published widely on legal education and the legal profession and is known for her empirical work in those fields.

About AccessLex Institute

AccessLex Institute is a nonprofit organization committed to helping talented, purpose-driven students find their path from aspiring lawyer to fulfilled professional. In partnership with its nearly 200 Member law schools, improving access and positively influencing legal education have been at the heart of the Company’s mission since 1983. AccessLex Institute is headquartered in West Chester, PA, with a team of accredited financial education counselors based throughout the United States. Learn more at

CONTACT: Julie Solomon,

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