Mitchell Hamline President and Dean Anthony Niedwiecki singled out the bar exam as a structure designed to keep especially people of color out of the legal profession, during a speech at his formal installation ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 23, according to a news release.
“I would argue that whether the bar exam is a good predictor of a law student’s abilities is not as important of a question as why was the bar created in the first place,” he said. “It was built to keep certain people out of the profession. It’s racist, and we should get rid of it.
“It doesn’t test the skills needed to be a successful lawyer, and there are other ways to license lawyers that are more reliable and equitable.”
Any change to the bar exam would be a decision in each state, not at any one law school. But the call-out was part of a wide-ranging speech designed to establish his vision for his tenure as president and dean of the law school, the release said. Niedwiecki discussed several ways the law and law schools still prevent people from becoming attorneys.
“As a gay, first-generation college student of modest means, I would not have been able to attend law school back in the 1800s, when it was only available to the elite and those with money and the time to attend,” he said. “But because the law affects everyone, it shouldn’t be developed by a select few who represent one segment of society. It should reflect the diversity of experiences across the country.”
As part of the effort to expand access, Niedwiecki announced the creation of a new scholarship for students with financial needs who want to use their law degree to make positive changes in their communities or want to do public interest work. It will be named for Lena Olive Smith, the first Black woman to be licensed to practice law in Minnesota, who graduated from a predecessor school to Mitchell Hamline 100 years ago. Niedwiecki personally pledged the first donation for the scholarship.
He said the way law school scholarships are awarded needs to change, as well. “It’s counter-intuitive, but only a small percentage of law school scholarships in this country are awarded based on financial need.”
Many times, he added, students with the highest LSAT scores get the most financial aid. “This is backwards to me. Law schools need to put as much effort into providing need-based scholarships as they do scholarships based on an LSAT score.”
Installation ceremonies are a tradition for most institutions of higher education to mark the start of a new leader’s tenure and to welcome that person to the school’s community. Niedwiecki became president and dean more than a year ago, on July 1, 2020, but COVID-19 protocols prevented such an event until now.
At the event, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison delivered the keynote address; Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and state Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig also spoke.
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