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  • April 27, 2020

    Diploma Privilege in the Pandemic Era

    In the age of COVID-19, law school graduates are facing postponed bar exams. What would diploma privilege look like outside Wisconsin? Ann Heaps discusses the issue from the point of view of an attorney who took the exam to become a Wisconsin lawyer.

    Ann M. Heaps

    Law students all over the country are asking for something that is an anomaly everywhere but Wisconsin: admission to the bar upon graduation without taking the bar exam.

    Wisconsin’s “diploma privilege” – or automatic admission – allows for law students to be sworn in to the bar almost immediately upon graduation from one of its two law schools, after meeting other requirements, such as the character and fitness review.

    As someone who went to law school in Massachusetts, I had to sit for the Wisconsin bar exam when preparing to move there in 2012. It wasn’t until later that I learned that, if you attend the U.W. or Marquette law schools and practice in Wisconsin after graduation, you don’t have to take the bar exam at all. After a grueling summer studying in Boston College’s Bapst Library, missing my flight to Madison and having my laptop die within minutes of finishing my exam, needless to say, I initially thought this was completely unfair. After all, misery loves company.

    Ann Heaps Ann Heaps, Boston College 2012, practices impact litigation at Texas Legal Services Center, a large nonprofit agency in Austin, Texas. She is enjoying her first year as an NRLD board member.

    However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s a rather ingenuous way to retain talent and encourage people to stay in Wisconsin following law school. In addition, when you only have two law schools, it’s relatively easy to monitor things like curriculum, faculty, and admissions to make sure you preserve the caliber of the students who ultimately become practicing attorneys. For example, the U.W. Law School has a core set of required courses for those seeking diploma privilege, and also requires a minimum C average to qualify.

    Considerations on Diploma Privilege Outside Wisconsin

    Today, faced with postponed bar exams and uncertainty ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, law students in states like California and Massachusetts are also seeking automatic admission to the bar.

    However, this raises many questions. Does quality or accreditation matter? If so, who will determine who will be admitted and who won’t? Should grades be considered in the process? Furthermore, if you are granted automatic admission, would you then have the ability to waive into another state?

    Proponents of automatic admission argue that the bar exam is an arbitrary measure of readiness to practice law anyway, not to mention it perpetuates inequalities given disparities in access to education and bar review courses. Others argue that studying for the bar is a rite of passage that everyone should have to go through it at least once in their careers.

    Folks in the second category might also say that the bar exam weeds out those who perhaps should not belong in the profession, and automatic admission may mean an oversaturation of attorneys.

    Some Alternatives

    There may be a middle ground.

    One popular alternative is to allow recent graduates to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney. This is akin to the “student practice rule” under SCR Chapter 50, that permits second semester 2Ls and 3Ls to provide legal representation under the supervision of a licensed attorney. This would allow recent graduates to start practicing law in a public or private setting, albeit under the supervision of another attorney, until bar exams become routine again.

    When I practiced in Milwaukee from 2012-18, I supervised a dozen or so students from Marquette Law School who had similar trial experiences that any barred attorney would. However, I can imagine a lot of recent graduates might not like a supervisor looking over their shoulder, making them feel they were perpetually students. After all, none of us go to law school because we have particularly small egos.

    It remains to be seen how the powers that be with handle the current situation, but it sure would make for an interesting reading comprehension question on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Nonresident Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.


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    Nonresident Lawyers Blog is published by the Nonresident Lawyers Division and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by division members. To contribute to this blog, contact Emily Kelchen and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Nonresident Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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