The Alaska Supreme Court issued an order on Monday lowering the minimum score needed to pass the bar exam and practice law as an attorney in the state, following a recommendation from the Alaska Bar Association to address difficulty in recruiting and retaining attorneys in the state.
The change lowers the minimum score from 280 to 270, putting Alaska in line with most other states that use the same testing format. Prior to the change, Alaska had the highest requirement in the nation. Some legal experts, including the leaders of Alaska’s Public Defender Agency and the Department of Law, said Alaska’s higher standard contributed to a shortage in attorneys that impeded critical state services, including the ability to provide legal representation to low income Alaskans facing serious criminal charges in rural Alaska.
The change applies retroactively up to five years, meaning individuals who took the exam either in Alaska or in another state and received a score under 280 but above 270 will now be able to apply to become bar members in Alaska. They previously were not eligible. Diana Wildland, president of the bar association board, said it was unclear how many new attorneys the state would gain immediately resulting from the change.
“But we are hopeful that we’re going to have a great deal more availability of people who want to come practice in Alaska, and who are now qualified to practice in Alaska,” said Wildland.
Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore, Alaska Public Defender chief Samantha Cherot and Office of Public Advocacy Director James Stinton said in a joint letter to the bar association earlier this year that lowering the bar exam score requirement would help address a backlog in criminal cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic, attorneys’ growing caseloads, and the agencies’ increasing challenges in recruiting new attorneys.
Angie Kemp, director of the Alaska Department of Law’s criminal division, said in an interview Tuesday that thanks to the change, the department will gain three prosecutors who had been hired by the department but scored below the cutoff when they took the bar exam in July.
“So immediately, we’re going to see a positive increase there just by virtue of the change,” said Kemp.
In the recruitment process, Kemp said applicants regularly commented on the high bar score requirement.
“It creates somewhat of a disincentive for folks who in most cases uproot their lives to move to Alaska,” said Kemp.
Cherot announced earlier this month that the Public Defender Agency would not take on new clients facing serious felony charges in the Nome and Bethel courts due to a lack of experienced public defenders in those office.
Since making the announcement, the agency was appointed to one serious felony case in Bethel but was able to find a contract attorney to take it on, Cherot said in an email Tuesday. The agency has not yet been appointed to any serious felony cases in Nome since announcing the staff shortage, Cherot said.
The public defender agency has received some applications for the vacancies in Nome and Bethel, but has not yet filled the positions in a way that would allow them to take on new clients, according to Cherot.
Wildland said the change is “going to be a big, positive impact for Alaskans” and that the Public Defender Agency and the Department of Law would likely be some of the agencies “most immediately affected.”