In July 2015, the newly elected President of the Florida Bar, Ramon Abadin created a firestorm of controversy with a proposal to allow attorneys from other states to practice law in Florida without the requirement of passing the State’s Bar Exam.
Reaction to Abadin’s proposal was swift – and ferocious – from the state’s more than 100,000 bar members. To say that a firestorm has been created would be an understatement.
As a 25-year participant and observer of the Florida Bar Exam in my capacity as owner of Celebration Bar Review, I’ve seen a lot of changes to the test and structure of the exam but never a proposal as far reaching as what President Abadin suggests.
There are currently 101,000 members of the Florida Bar. All of them – every one – had to take and pass the Florida Bar Exam, made up of 2 days of essay and multiple choice testing on a wide range of subjects. In addition, each applicant had to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), a separate ethics test administered by the Florida Bar and pass the most rigorous (some would add “hostile”) character and background check process in the nation.
Currently, the Florida Bar Exam has about a 64% pass rate for first time takers but a much lower pass rate for out of state attorneys and repeat takers. The expense of studying and taking the exam (given 2 times a year in Tampa) is substantial and represents a significant barrier for many lawyers who might want to relocate or practice law in Florida.
By most estimates, there is a current over-supply of lawyers in the state at present. Legal employment is far below its peak in 2008, law school enrollments have dropped sharply at the state’s 11 law schools and starting salaries for those who find jobs are dramatically lower than in the past.
At the same time, there are chronically underserved populations in the state (mostly poor and rural citizens along with immigrant workers) who need access to legal services but cannot afford it. This is one of the justifications for Abadin’s proposal – to stem the tide of Legal Service companies like LegalZoom and Avvo that have moved in to fill that need.
So, what’s the real purpose of the existing rules – protect the citizens of Florida from unprepared, unethical attorneys or create an artificial market for legal services in the state at the expense of its citizens?
Here’s my admittedly biased take on the controversy: The stated purpose of the Florida Bar has always been to protect both the citizens of the state and the profession but you need look no further than the symbol that graces the Florida Bar Examiners Seal to fully appreciate the irony. In the center of the Seal is a Griffin – the mythological guardian of the riches of the gods – to understand the primary function for the exam. The Florida Bar is a trade group who benefits more from limited supply of attorneys than by expanding supply.
President Abadin’s proposal is dead in the water because limiting the supply of new lawyers is good for the existing legal industry in the state. And that’s why it won’t happen. Not now, not in the foreseeable future, maybe not ever. As long as Florida has sunshine and beaches and as long as it gets cold and miserable in the Northeast and Midwest, lawyers who want to expand their practices into Florida will have to take a bar exam. Reciprocity? Nope, not gonna happen.
Over time, the exam that attorneys take may (note “may” not “will”) be different than the one currently administered, but there WILL continue to be a test and there WILL continue to be a background check and there WILL continue to be a significant financial hurdle to practice law in the state. To paraphrase a popular insurance company’s ad campaign, if you want to practice law in Florida, you take the bar exam – “it’s what you do.”
So, if you’re a member of the bar in the other 49 states and are thinking that you’ll wait for reciprocity to join the Florida Bar, put your suntan lotion away and hit the books. There’s a test in your future.