Timeline with red marker showing Generation Z on the year 2000.

Well, we’re not there yet—but we will be soon. According to at least one common measure, the oldest members of Gen Z are turning 24 this year. That means the first Gen Z law school graduates will be getting ready to take the bar exam before we know it.

In early May, members of the Testing Task Force attended NCBE’s 2019 Annual Bar Admissions Conference in San Francisco, which had 366 participants. The conference provides a yearly opportunity for bar admission administrators, bar examiners, board members, and state supreme court justices to discuss current and future issues in testing, character and fitness, and legal education. We were glad to be able to attend many informative sessions at this year’s conference, including one that discussed the characteristics of the millennial generation and Gen Z. Many current law students are millennials, while members of Gen Z will increasingly fill law school classes in the years ahead. We found that the observations made by the speakers at this session provided food for thought for anyone interested in the future of legal education, the bar exam, and bar admissions.

We’ll focus here on the presentation “Generation Z Goes to Law School” by panelist Laura Graham, a faculty member at Wake Forest University School of Law. (Graham’s article of the same name is available online now and forthcoming in the University of Arkansas Little Rock Law Review; some of our discussion here draws on that article, as well as on her conference presentation.) Graham categorized the millennial generation as those born between 1982 and 1994 and Gen Z as those born between 1995 and 2010. One key difference between the two generations: Gen Z is the first to grow up with smartphones (the iPhone was introduced in 2007, just as the oldest members of Gen Z were entering their teenage years).

Graham began her presentation with some important caveats: not everyone subscribes to generational theory, not every statement about a particular generation applies to all members of that generation, and the data about Gen Z is still emerging. Bearing these cautions in mind, it can nevertheless be said that when compared to previous generations, members of Gen Z tend to be more diverse, open-minded, tech savvy, adaptable, driven, and committed to justice.

One topic especially relevant to the Task Force’s work was Graham’s discussion of differences in attention, focus, and expectations about access to information among members of Gen Z: they are used to “power browsing” through reading material in the same way they scroll through web pages and social media feeds and tend to have shorter attention spans due to a constant influx of information.

The skills and abilities that members of Gen Z bring with them to law school are thus very different from those possessed by past cohorts of students; and this may in turn affect their preparedness for the current bar exam. Graham discussed a widespread sense that members of Gen Z have weaker critical thinking, reading, and writing skills when compared to members of previous generations. Graham’s article points to trends in recent decades in elementary and secondary school education, coupled with an increased use of technology, among other things, as possible reasons for this shift. She cites research suggesting that sustained use of technological tools like smartphones can actually change the way the human brain works.

If many members of Gen Z share a tendency to skim through information quickly, an expectation that information will always be available at their fingertips, and a decreased ability to read and write critically, what are the implications of all this for the future of legal education and the bar exam? With respect to the latter, we have heard varying opinions in the numerous stakeholder listening sessions we have conducted over the last six months. Some have argued that a single, summative, closed-book examination is no longer relevant for a generation raised with smartphones in their hands, while others have indicated that as long as certain skills are necessary for lawyering competence, those skills should be tested on the bar exam regardless of generational differences in learning. What we know for sure is that the practice of law and technology are changing rapidly, and the bar exam needs to continue to test minimum competence.

What do you think? To what extent, if at all, should the content, format, or timing of the bar exam change to reflect generational changes in habits, tendencies, or abilities? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Deborah Merritt

I think generational differences and changes in technology matter, but there is a more fundamental issue about teaching and testing the skills/knowledge needed for minimum competence. Lawyers have always referred to cases, statutes, and other sources to solve their clients’ problems. That was true in the 1970s, when we used hard copy of everything, including Shepard’s; the 1990’s, when we relied more heavily on computers; and today, when the same sources plus more are accessible through smart phones. By excluding reference to those materials (except on the MPT), the bar exam tests knowledge that doesn’t matter (application of hundreds of… Read more »