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May 22nd, 2015
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“Change is Good – Adoption of the UBE in New York” An Interview with NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman

“Change is Good – Adoption of the UBE in New York” An Interview with NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the State of New York has been instrumental in many bold reforms in the judicial system of the Empire State. As chief judge, Judge Lippman has relentlessly supported increased civil legal services by creating a Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, increasing funding to civil legal services, and enacting mandatory pro bono requirements for law students.

Recently, Judge Lippman has been actively involved in implementing a “major seminal change” to the bar process in New York. On April 30, 2015, the Court of Appeals, which oversees legal education in the state, amended the rules of admission to the bar by adopting a nationally standardized Uniform Bar Exam (UBE).

The Jewish Voice had the opportunity to interview Judge Lippman about the adoption of the UBE in New York in his chambers in midtown Manhattan. Although the adoption of a national exam is a change from the state-based system, which has been the same since the Gilded Age, it is hopeful that this change will ensure standards and increase opportunities for the next generation of New York attorneys.

New York is the 16th jurisdiction to adopt the UBE and will administer the UBE starting with the July 2016 exam. Interestingly, examinees taking the UBE earn a portable score that can be transferred from one UBE jurisdiction to another. This could be very helpful for people who relocate to another state, giving them the ability to continue working without have to re-take a bar exam. New York will begin accepting transferred UBE scores from other UBE jurisdictions on October 1, 2016.

“The main rationale for adoption of the UBE in New York was the recognition that the practice of law was more global in nature than it had ever been,” Judge Lippman says. “The practice of law does not stop along state or national lines.”

“Originally, I had a more parochial view, that says ‘Gee, we’re New York and we are the gold standard in terms of the profession,’” Judge Lippman intones. However, Judge Lippman confesses, “overtime I came to the realization that in the modern world putting up walls around your state or around the profession in your state is not good for the profession or good for New York.”

“The purpose of adopting a uniform bar exam in New York is for people taking the bar exam to have more mobility since they will now have a portable bar score that they can take to other states,” Judge Lippman observes. “By taking a national bar exam in one state, a person basically has a ticket to admission in all states that adopt the UBE,” he says.

The 15 other states currently using the UBE are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Most of these states are located out west and smaller in size than New York.

New York tests the most people for bar admission in the country, around 15,000 people per year. On that note, Judge Lippman declares, “New York is such a big part of the equation in the legal profession.” He predicts, “in a relatively short order you’ll get a ‘domino effect’ where in the not that distant future the remaining states will follow New York and adopt the UBE.”

Although Judge Lippman believes states on the east coast will hop on the UBE bandwagon, the timeframe when those remaining states will adopt the UBE is debatable. Judge Lippman emphasizes, it “takes time to prepare for the adoption of the UBE.”

For instance, to determine whether New York should adopt the UBE, Judge Lippman appointed an advisory committee to study the UBE as it exists around the country, to study the New York bar exam, and to determine or at least make recommendations as to whether the UBE made sense for New York. This high-level committee was headed by Associate Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera, a former professor of law, and comprised of a group including, the Head of the Board of Law Examiners, former state NYC Bar Presidents, and Deans of Law Schools. The committee studied the UBE, held public hearings, took feedback, and issued a comprehensive report. The committee recommended the UBE take effect July 2016 instead of this year to allow enough time for law schools, students, bar preparation course, and everyone else to become aware that it is going to be in place.

On discussing the content of the bar exam, Judge Lippman proffers, “rather than memorizing and focusing on arcane parts of New York law or statutes, our students should concentrate and understand the general principles of law without having to be distracted.”

To that end, Judge Lippman says, “the benefits of a national exam cut both ways, our state gains by having qualified people who passed it in other states coming here and our students gain in being able to pass it and go into other places.”

New law graduates gain the ability to sell their skills on the national market, rather than being tied down to practicing in one state. Further, the UBE has an additional bonus: examinees who flunk in one UBE state still have the ability to transfer their score to a state with a lower score requirement. This added bonus might have been of interest to those who did not pass the bar exam on their first attempt such as, Benjamin N. Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, of Sephardic Jewish and Spanish-Portuguese heritage or Elizabeth Wurtzel, a Jewish American writer and journalist, known for publishing her best-selling memoir, Prozac Nation.

At the same time, Judge Lippman states, “law firms will benefit because they will have a wider portfolio of aspiring lawyers to choose from.” “New York’s law firms and law profession will get the cream of the crop from people in other places in the country coming here,” he adds.

Despite concerns from law students and practitioners that adopting the UBE will increase competition for jobs by an “opening of floodgates” in New York, Judge Lippman warns, “New York does not have to be afraid of competition.” “New York lawyers do not have the élan they do because of the bar exam, they have it because of the kind of work they do,” he says. “It is not about a bar exam, it is about having the best people here in New York to deal with the highest level of law in the country. It will only energize and put more of a premium to the New York credential to be able to be admitted here,” he adds.

Judge Lippman’s advice to future graduating law students is “to do work you are passionate about.”

Reminiscing over his profound legal career, Judge Lippman considers himself a “lifer” in the court system since his whole career has been involved in the courts. “The local stars and heroes on the Lower East Side where I came from were the judges in the local courts,” he states. “It was a natural thing for me to want to work in the courts.” Judge Lippman has gone from an entry-level court attorney, drafting memos and decisions for the judges in the Supreme Court in New York County, to Chief Judge in a little over 40 years. Judge Lippman proclaims, “it was not exactly over night but it is something I love and a career in the courts is great.”

“A career in the law is about what moves you, what gives you energy and inspiration,” Judge Lippman exclaims. “For my own career, what mattered was doing things professionally meaningful to me. As Chief Judge, I try to maintain that passion and energy to do things that matter and to fulfill the mandate we have as a legal profession and a judiciary, to pursue justice for all.”

“Going back to the biblical admonitions of the Old Testament which says, ‘Justice, Justice shall you pursue for rich and poor, high and low alike,’ that is what my passion is about,” Judge Lippman says. “Everyone should do things they feel strongly about because you do it so much better if it energizes you and if it is something that you care passionately about,” he continues.

On December 31, 2015, Judge Lippman’s term as Chief Judge for the State of New York comes to an end. When discussing if he has any plans for the future, Judge Lippman shares, “right now, I am too busy concentrating on being the Chief Judge.” He says, “I have a lot more to do between now and the end of the year.” He explains, “change is good in life and I look forward to the next chapter or challenge.” According to the chief judge, “there is a season for everything and that time will come. I hope to do something meaningful.”

The Jewish Voice deeply commends Chief Judge Lippman on his accomplishments thus far. We look forward to what Judge Lippman will accomplish during the last leg of his term as Chief Judge and in the future.


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