PHOENIX - A veteran legislator wants to allow people to practice law in Arizona with less classroom training than now required to cut hair.
The proposal by Sen. Rick Murphy would eliminate the existing requirement for a degree from an accredited law school as a precursor. Instead, SCR 1018 says anyone who could pass the bar exam - the same test law school graduates have to take - would get the same privilege to take on clients, prepare legal briefs and argue civil and criminal cases in court.
Murphy said too much is made of law degrees.
"There are lots of folks who go to law school and then have no idea how to successfully practice law," the Glendale Republican said. "I hired some of those people," added Murphy, who has been a real estate agent and business consultant. "So I ought to know."
He noted the state requires someone to pass the test even after graduating from law school.
"Either the test is a meaningful measure of your aptitude to practice law, or it's not," he said.
Murphy acknowledged that lawmakers have mandated 1,300 hours of classroom training to cut hair and 1,600 hours to get a cosmetology license. But he said the comparison is invalid.
"You're not going to damage anybody's health by having an unsanitary law practice, although there's lots of times when you deal with a lawyer that you end up getting your hair cut pretty bad," he quipped.
Senate Minority Leader Leah Landrum Taylor, a Phoenix Democrat who is not a lawyer, said Murphy's proposal sets a bad precedent.
"Eventually, maybe someone may decide med school is unnecessary," she said, so that anyone who passed a standardized test would be free to start doing surgery.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who is a lawyer, said, "I'm happy to look at that bill. But at this point I think you probably ought to go to law school."
Farnsworth chairs the House Judiciary Committee. That is where Murphy's bill would go, assuming it gets Senate approval.
Farnsworth said there is an argument to be made that it should not matter how someone gains his or her knowledge of the law, whether it's by going to law school, doing a lot of personal study or working with an attorney. But he said that knowledge, however gained, is only part of what's needed.
"Law school teaches you to think like an attorney," he said. Farnsworth said that means knowing not just what the law says but how to apply it to the best interests of your clients.
Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, another attorney, said the proposed legislation puts too much reliance on passing a single test as an indication of ability to practice.
"I think that, given enough time, just about anybody who can study can figure out a way to pass the bar exam," he said, noting that half of it involves multiple-choice questions.
But Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, who did go to law school, said Murphy may be on to something.
"I saw a lot of people that went to law school that never could pass the bar exam," Biggs said. He said it's not like graduating from law school and passing the test - he actually passed exams in New Mexico, Washington and Arizona - means someone is ready to take on clients.
John Phelps, executive director of the State Bar of Arizona, said Murphy's proposal ignores that not everything a lawyer needs to know can be taught in a book and measured in a written exam.
"Those things include trial advocacy, negotiations, writing much more significantly than what you can write in a bar exam," he said.
"I'm not saying that a person with the right kind of maybe natural-born skills or skills that are required elsewhere, or skills that are acquired by being an apprentice to a lawyer, might not be successful without having to go through law school," Phelps said. But he said there needs to be a system that can handle everyone who wants to practice.
DID YOU KNOW?
Well into the 20th century, Arizonans were allowed to become lawyers solely by passing the bar exam. One of the last Arizonans to enter the profession that way was Wes Polley, who was Cochise County attorney in the 1950s and still practicing into the 1980s. He is now deceased.
In a 1984 interview, Polley told Capitol Media Services he did not think he missed much by being unable to attend the University of Arizona. "I was married when I was 16," he said. "There was no way I could make a living and become a full-time student."
Instead, Polley worked part time as a guard at the state prison in Florence, studying when he could at the Pinal County law library. He also worked with friends who were law school grads "who told me generally what they thought was necessary and what they felt was fluff. So I just concentrated on the things that were necessary."
Polley said he came close to passing the bar exam on his first try. It took a second attempt, in 1936, to allow him to hang out his shingle.