Coming Soon: A Competence-Based Approach to Law Licensure – Holloran Center Professional Identity Implementation Blog
Jordan Furlong

Coming Soon: A Competence-Based Approach to Law Licensure

By: Jordan Furlong, Canadian Legal Sector Analyst, Forecaster, Speaker, and Consultant

Nobody is happy with the bar exam, and nobody should be. Licensure candidates who borrow and spend heavily and study for years to earn a law degree have to hit the books again, immediately after graduation, to prepare for a much tougher set of legal knowledge tests whose results actually matter.

Scarcely more than two-thirds of all candidates pass the bar exam, with failure rates especially high among repeat test-takers and members of racialized communities. And nobody has ever established a link between bar exam passage and competence to practice law.

Even the organization that sets the bar exam admits the current version needs to be improved, although the NCBE doesn’t intend to introduce a revamped version until 2026. And if you’re not aware of the serious issues with how the bar exam is executed in practice, go to Twitter and search for the hashtag #barpocalypse. Prepare to be appalled.

The whole situation needs improvement, and every day more people find themselves asking, “Is this really the best we can do? Isn’t there any other way to determine if a person is competent to be admitted to practice law?” As a matter of fact, there is — and a recent development in Canada, to which I’ve contributed, might have brought us a little closer to that better way becoming reality in the United States. That better way, competence-based licensure, represents the future of bar admission.

In our current system, a candidate acquires knowledge-based credentials from a third party (a law school and a board of bar examiners), and regulators accept those credentials as a proxy for readiness to practice law. Nobody directly assesses whether the candidate is actually competent to practice law, in terms of their knowledge, skills, attributes, and experiences. As a result, successful candidates enter the profession plagued by impostor syndrome, while unsuccessful candidates are left to wonder why they fell short.

In a competence-based law licensing system, by contrast, the regulator identifies the precise knowledge, skills, attributes, and experiences that a candidate must possess in order to be minimally competent to practice law, and it creates an accessible process through which candidates can prove to the regulator that they possess those competencies.

In a competence-based licensure system, everyone knows what’s required of a new lawyer, and anyone can acquire and demonstrate possession of those attributes. It’s a far more equitable, rational, defensible, and transparent licensing system. And it’s already been proven to work.

The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority of England & Wales was the first regulator to introduce a competence-based licensing system a few years ago. The SRA, following a lengthy and comprehensive period of study and consultation, identified the essential knowledge and the core competencies of a “Day One” solicitor, as well as the level of proficiency required of each competency at the point of professional entry.

These “competence statements” from the professional regulator then formed the basis of two challenging sets of entrance exams (one for knowledge, the other for practice skills). Combined with a two-year apprenticeship requirement, they replaced all previous requirements for entry to the solicitor profession in England and Wales.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the SRA’s switch to a competence-based systems is this: a law degree is no longer required in order to become a lawyer. The SRA reasoned that if a candidate could pass its difficult entrance exams, that candidate clearly possessed the legal knowledge and skills to be a lawyer.

Crucially, the SRA does not care how a candidate acquires that knowledge and skill. Unlike regulators in the United States, it does not require a licensure candidate to acquire two very similar sets of knowledge credentials. It only cares that the candidate can demonstrate to the regulator possession of the core competencies of entry-point practice. The regulator encourages candidates to acquire that ability in any number of ways.

Competence-based licensure has also emerged as part of the bar admission system in parts of Canada over the past few years. Four Canadian provinces use an entirely skills-based bar admission course called the Practice Readiness Education Program (PREP), which is based on an innovative skills-oriented competence framework. And just last year, the province of New Brunswick introduced a detailed competency profile to accompany its new bar admission program.

This was the context in which the Law Society of British Columbia (the regulator of lawyers and legal services in the province of B.C.) asked me last year to suggest reforms to its own lawyer licensing system. The Law Society of B.C. was familiar with my 2020 report and recommendations to the neighboring Law Society of Alberta, “Lawyer Licensing and Competence in Alberta,” which touched on several similar topics. My 82-page report, submitted in May 2022, recommended that B.C. create a competence framework for entry-level fitness to practice law and design a competence-based licensing system based on that framework. In September, the Law Society accepted that recommendation.

The system I recommended for B.C. most closely resembles the SRA’s approach in England & Wales. I suggested that the Law Society engage in extensive consultations with myriad stakeholders in the legal sector — not just lawyers — to determine the essential knowledge, skills, attributes, and experiences that reflect what a member of the public had a right to expect from a lawyer on their first day in practice.

But I also warned against making that competence framework a “wish list” of ideal lawyer attributes, specifying hundreds of different competencies that candidates must acquire and proficiently demonstrate for licensure. “Day One” competence, while it must meet minimum standards, should not be any higher than that; otherwise, you’re just creating (another) barrier to professional entry. In a separate and upcoming post, I will share my suggested “starter kit” of competencies that new lawyers should posses.

Beyond that core recommendation, I made several other non-binding suggestions to the Law Society, including the hot-button idea of dropping the law degree requirement, introducing new instruction in professional responsibility and professional awareness, and making major reforms to the “supervised practice” requirement that all Canadian law licensure candidates must fulfill before bar admission. The Law Society of B.C. has left decisions on all these points to a specially appointed task force.

It will still be several years before the first cohort of lawyers licensed through a competence-based system enters the British Columbia legal profession. Designing a competence framework for lawyers is a major undertaking, all the more challenging given the rapid shifts in our profession and society. Building a licensing process around that framework is another huge job. This is going to take a while.

But it should also change, for the better, the process by which people in B.C. become lawyers. By abandoning an archaic and opaque credentials-based system, and embracing a modern and transparent competence-based system, the Law Society of B.C.  will increase public and professional confidence in the ability of lawyers to do their jobs from Day One. It will bring lawyer licensing into line with other professions’ admission systems and go a long way towards defeating “impostor syndrome” among new lawyers.

My sincere hope is that my report dovetails with the existing and burgeoning efforts in other jurisdictions (especially Oregon), so that our profession will one day boast a lawyer licensing system based not on a series of inadequate and exclusionary proxies, but on demonstrated competence to practice law. The public in general, and our clients in particular, deserve at least that much from our profession.

Should you have any question or comments about this post, please feel free to contact me at

Jordan Furlong is a Canadian Legal Sector Analyst, Forecaster, Speaker, and Consultant.



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