Cover of Shaping the Bar by Joan W. Howarth
Shaping the Bar
The Future of Attorney Licensing
Joan W. Howarth


December 2022
240 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503613560
Ebook ISBN: 9781503633698

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The comprehensive source on attorney licensing and how to reform it.

In Shaping the Bar, Joan Howarth describes how the twin gatekeepers of the legal profession—law schools and licensers—are failing the public. Attorney licensing should be laser-focused on readiness to practice law with the minimum competence of a new attorney. According to Howarth, requirements today are both too difficult and too easy. Amid the crisis in unmet legal services, record numbers of law school graduates—disproportionately people of color—are failing bar exams that are not meaningful tests of competence to practice. At the same time, after seven years of higher education, hundreds of thousands of dollars of law school debt, two months of cramming legal rules, and success on a bar exam, a candidate can be licensed to practice law without ever having been in a law office or even seen a lawyer with a client.

Howarth makes the case that the licensing rituals familiar to generations of lawyers—unfocused law degrees and obsolete bar exams—are protecting members of the profession more than the public. Beyond explaining the failures of the current system, this book presents the latest research on competent lawyering and examples of better approaches. This book presents the path forward by means of licensing changes to protect the public while building an inclusive, diverse, competent, ethical profession.

Thoughtful and engaging, Shaping the Bar is both an authoritative account of attorney licensing and a pragmatic handbook for overdue equitable reform of a powerful profession.

About the author

Joan W. Howarth is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Dean Emerita of the Michigan State University College of Law. She also serves as a member of the Nevada Board of Bar Examiners.

"Howarth's vision is to establish a new approach that protects potential legal clients and promotes inclusion and diversity in the profession."

Trial Magazine

"Shaping the Bar's careful history and comprehensive data about the failures of legal education and licensure is critical reading for legal educators, state supreme courts and all who care about building an ethical, competent, diverse legal profession that can meet the growing access to justice crisis in the United States. At a moment where more change is underway in the profession than in a century, Professor Howarth's work can be the starting point for every important conversation about education and licensure reform for lawyers."

—Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, University of Michigan

"Dean Howarth has written the definitive book on the history and objectives of lawyer licensing. She masterfully weaves the troubling history of the bar exam into a thoughtful depiction of our current predicament – in short, a flawed system of assessment that impedes access and diversity in the elusive quest for professional competence. Shaping the Bar is richly informative and timely."

—Daniel B. Rodriguez, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law

"Shaping the Bar provides a superb history of American legal education, of requirements for bar admissions, and of bar examinations. Tremendously impressive, thorough, and excellent in every respect, this book will be an important, original contribution to the literature about legal education and bar exams."

—Erwin Chemerinsky, Berkeley Law School

"Joan Howarth's Shaping the Bar is a must-read for state supreme courts and the bar associations they oversee. She makes a compelling case that the rule of law is fortified by a diverse community of lawyers, and offers brilliant insights to ensure that a license to practice truly reflects lawyers' ability to achieve the best outcomes for the clients they serve."

—Wallace B. Jefferson, Chief Justice (ret.) Supreme Court of Texas