'Diploma Privilege' May Be Death Knell for Bar Exam

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Wisconsin law school graduates are undoubtedly happier than other law school graduates — America's Dairyland is the only state that does not require a bar exam.

Students who graduate from a state law school can practice in Wisconsin without taking or passing a bar exam. It's called “diploma privilege,” and the system is currently under consideration in Iowa as well.

Arguments against a bar exam are many. Most lawyers agree that there is little correlation between the material on the exam and what one finds on the job as a practicing attorney.

In addition, the cost is far from negligible. Most lawyers take a course after law school in order to prepare for the bar exam, which can run several thousand dollars, an added expense to the already high cost of going to law school for three years.

With a lower cost of education, it may be possible to encourage graduates to open a practice in “underserved” communities. That might help address the concern expressed by some bar executives recently that we have a mismatch of a supply of lawyers and demand for their services.

Furthermore, the bar exam is usually given twice a year and takes several months to be graded. Thus, a lawyer's employment and income-earning abilities are put on hold for a minimum of half a year, a large burden for many with huge law school debt.

In addition, the diploma privilege system is added inducement to go to a state law school at a time when enrollment is slipping.

Finally, without a bar exam, the law school won't have to “teach to the test” and can provide a more practical curriculum, teaching more suited to the actual practice of law.

There are fewer arguments in favor of an exam. The main argument is the same one used to champion an undergraduate college education in liberal arts: It makes students better-rounded. When bar exams are mandatory, law schools teach a diverse array of courses.

Regardless of whether a student practices contract law, proponents say, it is important to learn about contract theory. Studying a wide range of topics in law school provides exposure to new subjects, one or more of which will spark an interest in the student that could change his or her career path.

Furthermore, proponents of the exam argue that teaching courses about various subjects, irrespective of their practical application, may be the only time the student will learn about a wide range of legal theories.

Law school is not a trade school, argue these proponents; it is and should be more concerned about the theory of the law — that is, the true teaching of law.

Another alternative to the traditional bar exam is the Uniform Bar Exam, now offered in 14 states. The UBE enables anyone who passes it to practice in any of the other states that offer the UBE — no other exam is required. However, each of the states may set its own passage score requirement for applicants.

In the states that currently offer the UBE, there are only a few law schools (only one or two in some), which makes oversight relatively simple. In California, by contrast, there is a plethora of law schools, many of which are not currently ABA-approved. Setting minimum quality standards for all of those schools would be difficult, if not politically impossible.

With close to 30 percent of states currently offering the same bar exam and the idea of a diploma privilege system growing, the death knell for the traditional bar exam is growing louder — and soon more law school graduates may be doing the Badger dance.

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