This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Summer 2023 (Vol. 92, No. 2), pp. 40–46.
The NCBE Annual Bar Admissions Conference is an educational event designed for members of the bar examining and admissions community. Attendees include justices from jurisdictions’ highest courts, bar admission administrators, and members of boards of bar examiners, all of whom direct the bar admissions process in their jurisdictions. The conference focuses on the issues that influence the licensing of lawyers both today and in the future.
NCBE held its 2023 Annual Bar Admissions Conference in Nashville on May 4–7. 53 jurisdictions were represented by the 376 attendees, which included 138 first-time attendees and 53 justices from jurisdictions’ highest courts.
Thursday afternoon kicked off conference programming with a roundtable for the justices in attendance, followed by the evening opening reception. Timothy Wong, NCBE Board of Trustees Chair, and Judith Gundersen, NCBE President and CEO, welcomed attendees on Friday morning. Gundersen then introduced Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama, who delivered the keynote address. NCBE Education Committee Chair Darin Scheer and Council of Bar Admission Administrators Chair Jeffrey Shipley welcomed attendees on Saturday.
The conference’s three plenary sessions covered topics that included character and fitness, the NextGen bar exam, and artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
Is It Still a Crime? Character and Fitness Meets Criminal Justice Reform
ACLU of New Mexico’s deputy director gave an eye-opening look at changes across the country affecting how different courts handle immigration status, cannabis decriminalization/legalization, interdiction, expungement, juvenile offenses, and varying probation/parole requirements.
Standard Setting for the NextGen Bar Exam
Gregory Cizek, PhD; Deborah Harris, PhD
The NextGen bar exam will be set to a new scale, leaving behind today’s score range (and passing scores) and reflecting the new exam’s changed content, format, and delivery. Testing experts from the University of North Carolina and the University of Iowa discussed the process to establish a new score scale and the policy decisions each jurisdiction will make to establish its own passing score.
AI Takes the Bar Exam
Andreas Oranje, PhD; Hon. Ann Scott Timmer
Artificial intelligence has been all over the news lately. What are its implications for the legal profession, and how is it already being used by legal professionals today? This session provided a discussion of this new frontier.
Breakout Sessions and Workshops
A Lawyer’s Character: Reviewing the Standard Application
Penelope Gessler, Gina Palmer, Douglas Peterson, Hon. Phyllis Thompson
NCBE’s standard character application serves as the admission application for approximately 25 jurisdictions and as a model for many more. Currently, NCBE’s Diversity and Inclusion and Character and Fitness Investigations Committees are jointly engaged in reviewing the character application. Their goal is a streamlined application that is fair and equitable for a diverse applicant population and that only seeks information relevant to an applicant’s character and fitness for admission to the bar. This session engaged participants in a discussion of the pros and cons of various question types and provided suggested best practices that all jurisdictions can employ, whether they use the NCBE application or not.
Best Practices in Test Security: Before, During, and After the Exam
Susan Baek; Mengyao Zhang, PhD
Maintaining the integrity of test questions throughout the examination process ensures a fair test for all candidates and can also, in cases of suspected cheating, provide jurisdictions with essential character and fitness information. This session allowed attendees to discover the best ways to prepare for, identify, and mitigate risks of cheating and item harvesting before, during, and after the exam.
“Who, Me?” DEI Training and Awareness at All Stages of the Admissions Process
Hermence Matsotsa, MPH Ed
A global trainer in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), organizational culture, and leadership examined the origins and types of bias, and strategies to increase our personal and organizational self-awareness while reducing implicit bias in the bar admissions process.
An experienced litigator shared his perspective on recent cases of interest to bar examiners involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and developments on the ADA regulatory and enforcement fronts from the past year.
Character & Fitness: What’s Mental Health Got to Do with It?
Jennifer DiSanza, Danielle Hall, Dan Saar
As jurisdictions have removed controversial mental health questions from their applications, they have instituted concrete strategies to ensure a necessary balance between two important priorities: encouraging help-seeking behaviors and effectively supporting the character and fitness process. Designed for jurisdictions that wish to adjust or eliminate their mental health questions, this session featured small-group discussions with jurisdiction leaders who have already made the change.
Understanding Validity, Reliability, and Fairness in Testing
Joanne Kane, PhD; April Southwick
Terms like validity, reliability, and fairness have both everyday meanings and psychometric definitions. Using discussion, hands-on opportunities, and additional resources, this session focused on how these frequently misunderstood terms are applied in the context of high-stakes testing and prepared participants to engage with stakeholders over common misperceptions regarding the bar exam.
The Role of Prelaw Programs in Diversifying the Profession
Lynda Cevallos, Rodina Cave Parnall
Leadership from two of the country’s longest-running, most established prelaw diversity programs (the Council on Legal Education Opportunity and the American Indian Law Center) discussed how robust prelaw and mentorship programs can help meet the needs of diverse law applicants and the current challenges their participants face on the path to becoming attorneys.
Staying the Course: Law Student Professional Identity in Uncertain Times
Louis Bilionis, Barbara Glesner Fines, Neil Hamilton
In February 2022, the American Bar Association revised Accreditation Standard 303 to include the requirements that “a law school shall provide substantial opportunities to students for … the development of a professional identity” and “provide education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism.” Three law professors discussed how the legal academy can rise to the challenge of meeting these requirements.
Conditional Admission: A Hands-On Session
JT Almon, Melissa Hansen, Bradley Skolnik
Nearly half of all US jurisdictions allow for some form of conditional admission, predicated on a range of character and fitness concerns. Depending on the jurisdiction, these may include criminal history, substance abuse, debt, and mental incapacity. In this interactive workshop, participants learned about current conditional admissions policies across the country, how conditional admission is structured, and what conditional admission requirements are most effective.
Danette Waller McKinley, PhD; Marilyn Wellington
Designed for attendees who had not yet participated in a NextGen bar exam information session, this session covered the development of the new bar exam (slated for its first administration in some jurisdictions in July 2026), including the results of a nationwide practice analysis and expert-designed content scope outlines. This Friday session was intended to inform participants and prepare to engage them in Saturday’s NextGen sessions.
Neurodiversity in Law School, Legal Employment, and Life
Nirvana Dove, Paul Johnson, AJ Link
As awareness of neurodiversity grows in the broader legal community, law schools and legal employers have begun to examine the multiple barriers to inclusion facing neurodiverse law students and lawyers, including stigma, lack of understanding, and hesitancy to disclose/underreporting. This session provided participants with key information about neurodiversity and helped them explore issues of identity, advocacy, and interpersonal relations.
International Issues in Legal Licensure
Priya Bhatia; Nuala Haughey; Marium Jabyn, PhD; Jessie Tannenbaum
Attorney licensure is undergoing exciting changes across the globe, driven by both emerging challenges and innovative thinking. A group of international legal innovators discussed some of the latest developments in licensure abroad.
Designing a Fair and Accessible Exam: Pilot and Field Test Update
Danette Waller McKinley, PhD; Hilary Symes, PhD
Fairness and accessibility to examinees is front and center in the development of the NextGen bar exam, with universal design principles leading NCBE’s inquiry into how to deliver the new exam. Through pilot and field testing, NCBE researchers are examining the effect of new question types, delivery modes, and in-test examinee resources on the ability of all examinees to demonstrate readiness to practice law. In this session, attendees received an update on current research and a preview of future research stages.
Streamlining the Rule Change Process in Your Jurisdiction
Hon. David Lowy, Dylan O’Reilly, Troy Wood
In a recent survey, over 94% of jurisdictions stated they will need changes to their rules, statutes, and/or policies to ensure a smooth transition to NextGen. This session was designed to help jurisdiction leadership (bar examiners and administrators) begin the process of planning for these changes. Jurisdictions were encouraged to send participants to this session in teams to best facilitate internal discussion of their own change processes.
Finalizing the Content and Format of the NextGen Bar Exam
Beth Donahue, Hemanth Gundavaram, Jon Lee
This session offered updates on the subjects and skills to be tested on the new bar exam, including previews of new question types.
Establishing a Passing Score: A Mini-Workshop on Standard Setting
Juan Chen, PhD; Danette Waller McKinley, PhD
Standard setting is one of the most critical tasks in the field of educational measurement. This hands-on session provided an overview of the process using a sample set of items, definitions of psychometric and scoring terms, and typical questions used to determine passing scores.
Administering the NextGen Exam: Latest Updates
Ingrid Jorgenson, Sophie Martin, Jeffrey Shipley, Marilyn Wellington
The NextGen exam will be administered by jurisdictions at their own sites but with significant additional support from NCBE. In this session, participants learned the latest details on the nuts and bolts of administration—from registration to exam day to grading—for the new exam.
NextGen Q&A: A Session for Justices
Judith Gundersen, Hon. Cynthia Martin
A justices-only session explored how the future bar exam will impact bar admissions in the jurisdictions.