Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the bar exam has been in flux.
By the time that you are reading this post, many states have already completed their issuance of an in-person exam, a remote exam, or canceled the exam altogether. Whereas some states have offered a diploma privilege option to qualified candidates. This option, which has existed as a valid alternative to the bar for some time in Wisconsin, has stirred up some controversy as a safe alternative to in-person testing during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, five states have implemented this as an option in 2020.
As this year comes to a close and the pandemic intensifies, there is a strong likelihood that the bar will continue to be in flux for the February and July 2021 exam, and states will continue to pursue alternatives.
If you are scheduled to take the bar in 2021 and you are in a state that currently offers diploma privilege or will offer this option, it will be helpful to fully understand this alternative before selecting this choice.
What is Diploma Privilege?
Diploma privilege is an exam waiver option that allows JD graduates to obtain attorney licensure without taking the bar. In other words, if you are a recent law school graduate, diploma privilege would allow you to become a practicing attorney without sitting for the bar exam.
You may be thinking, this sounds like a dream option! So why don’t more states utilize it? Although this is an excellent option for JDs, it is highly controversial. The NCBE does not support this alternative even in a global pandemic and cites the below reasons for their decision.
- Local Admission Limitation – Diploma privilege is restricted to the jurisdiction offering this benefit, therefore the NCBE cites that it would limit an attorney’s ability to practice in multiple jurisdictions. A benefit offered with the transferable UBE.
- It Diminishes the Public Protection Function – The NCBE cites that the bar exam provides an objective final check on whether a JD graduate is truly ready to practice. Diploma privilege shifts the public protection check from an objective court to the law schools, which may use subjective measures to issue a JD to their students.
- It Creates Inconsistent Qualifications – Diploma privilege waives the objectivity of an exam, in testing an examinee’s qualification to practice. Instead, an attorney’s qualifications will be based on the subjective nature of their law school curriculum or supervising attorney’s guidance.
What States are Offering Diploma Privilege During COVID-19?
Wisconsin is the only state that offered diploma privilege prior to the COVID-19 crisis. However, the below states offered this alternative in 2020 in response to the COVID health risks in-person testing would pose during the pandemic.
- Utah offers diploma privilege to qualified candidates who graduated by June 30, 2020, passed the MPRE, completed a criminal background check, and who have completed 360 hours of supervised practice by December 31, 2020.
- Washington offers diploma privilege to JD graduates who have registered for the July or September 2020 exam.
- Oregon offers diploma privilege to 2020 JD graduates who were registered to sit for the July 2020 bar exam, have met character and fitness requirements, and have elected to request this option.
- Louisiana offers diploma privilege to JDs who graduated in December 2019 or later, registered for the July or October 2020 bar exam, and passed the MPRE.
- D.C. offers diploma privilege to 2019 or 2020 JD graduates who were registered to take the bar exam in 2020, passed the MPRE, and haven’t been admitted to another state bar. Candidates who utilize this option are required to practice under a supervising attorney for three years following their admission to the state bar.
Pros of Diploma Privilege
Although controversial, diploma privilege does offer some exceptional benefits:
- Immediate bar admission – graduates would have the option to immediately start practicing shortly after graduation, as opposed to going through months of extensive bar exam prep before being given the green light to practice. An earlier start to practice could also be beneficial to employers who would have less of a lag in their workforce while waiting for an employee to receive licensure.
- More licensed attorneys for pro bono work – This is perhaps the most relevant benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis has driven many individuals to homelessness, unemployment, or enduring unsafe work practices. Considering the economic downturn this crisis has caused, people need attorneys now more than ever to represent them for free. Diploma privilege opens the gate for more attorneys to jump in and represent these people pro bono.
- Examinees can forego expensive bar exam fees – Bar exam fees are extremely expensive. Between the cost of the actual exam and the preparation course, an examinee could end up spending thousands. In fact, many examinees end up needing to get a bar study loan which puts them in further debt. Diploma privilege would allow graduates to forego these costs.
Cons of Diploma Privilege
Diploma privilege also has some consequences:
Limits an attorney’s flexibility to practice in different states – States that offer this alternative only allow its recipients to practice within that state. In some cases, an applicant can only take advantage if they went to law school in that state.
This option is especially restrictive if you originally planned to sit for the UBE that gives you reciprocity with other UBE states. It is also restrictive as it would block your ability to be admitted on motion to practice in another state.
Attorney supervision may be difficult to attain – Some states that offer diploma privilege require extensive hours of attorney supervision. This may be easy to attain if an applicant is working for a firm and can be paired up with an attorney there. However, if an applicant plans to be a solo practitioner, work in-house, or work for a non-profit, it may be difficult to fulfill the attorney supervision requirement.
Is it Worth It to Accept Diploma Privilege?
If you are determining whether you should accept diploma privilege, consider:
Whether you would like to practice in another state: If so, diploma privilege will restrict your ability to relocate. Keep in mind, however, that if you originally planned to take the MBE, this same mobility limitation would exist. However, if you planned to take the UBE, diploma privilege would be restrictive.
If you already have a job offer in a state with diploma privilege: If so, it may be worth it to accept diploma privilege and begin working. Even if you don’t plan to stay there in the long run, it may be beneficial to at least get started there considering the current state of our economy.
I hope these factors will be helpful as you make your decision!