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Book Review

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bar exam, attorney licensure, professional regulation, licensing, ABA, Howarth, Griggs, apprenticeship, supervised practice, clinical education, legal education, clinical residency, racism, exclusion


In Shaping the Bar: The Future of Attorney Licensing, Professor Joan Howarth issues a clarion call to the academy, the legal community, and the judiciary to reform the way we license lawyers in the United States. In this book Howarth identifies the current crisis in law licensing, the history of racism that created this crisis, and the tools available to address it. Shaping the Bar challenges our entrenched notions of professional identity, and it forces us to confront vulnerabilities in attorney self-regulation. It does so in a manner that will stir even those not immersed in the current debate about law licensing.

What is the crisis in law licensing? Howarth answers that question and explains that the current crisis is twofold. First, the attorney licensing system fails at its stated purpose of public protection because it does not assess the skills and abilities new lawyers need to competently represent clients. Second, the attorney licensing system unjustifiably excludes people of color and those without financial resources. Throughout the book, Howarth connects the law licensing process to legal education, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the two, and noting that as legal educators, we must accept responsibility for our part in creating, and hopefully now dismantling,
this system.

In this review, we summarize some of the key issues Howarth raises about the problems with the current system of attorney licensure and the way we educate law students. We briefly expand upon some of her ideas and analyze the benefits and drawbacks of her suggestions for change. We do so without referencing the extensive sources she offers in support of her arguments. We use her work to provide a concise yet informative evolution of the systemic shortcomings in bar admission for those not conversant with the current crisis.

Part I juxtaposes the purpose and reality of public protection through bar exams. Part II rolls back a curtain to much that is unknown and unexamined about assessing minimum competency for the practice of law. Part III explores exclusionary practices and outcomes in character and fitness assessments, and discusses Professor Howarth’s solutions to improve the process. In Part IV, we recount Howarth’s innovative, and eminently workable, suggestions to improve the current system of attorney licensure. It is here, specifically, that Howarth’s creativity and practicality meet to make this book a road map for those seeking to implement a better process for bar admission, one that is both valid and fair.