Philly Bar Association Endorses Limited Diploma Privilege

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (August 5, 2020, 3:08 PM EDT) -- In a split with statewide bar leaders, the Philadelphia Bar Association on Wednesday threw its support behind a limited plan to allow this year's crop of law school graduates to temporarily begin practicing law without taking the bar exam, as a result of the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Pennsylvania Bar Association released a proposal last week that endorsed allowing this year's law school class to be admitted to practice permanently without passing the bar exam, bar leaders in Philadelphia said they believe graduates should ultimately be required to take the test.

Chancellor A. Michael Snyder told Law360 he believes it would be in the best interest of law school graduates that they take the bar exam.

"One of our most significant concerns was in desiring to fully protect the current class of students that they not have a stain or blotch upon their record years later when people see that they did not take the bar exam," he said. "We wanted to prevent there being a reason for law firms to say later, 'You're not qualified' and not hire them."

Under the Philadelphia Bar Association's plans, individuals who are currently registered for the Pennsylvania bar would be granted diploma privilege for a limited amount of time contingent on the ongoing state of emergency declared by Gov. Tom Wolf related to the virus outbreak.

"Admission to practice by diploma privilege should continue until the earlier of one year after the termination of the governor's COVID-19 declaration of a disaster emergency or upon notification that the individual failed the Pennsylvania bar examination," the organization said in an unsigned statement.

The state's Board of Law Examiners is currently planning to administer the bar exam online in October after canceling the usual in-person sitting in July as a result of the pandemic.

Last week, however, the Pennsylvania Bar Association released a proposal calling on the board to allow graduates of accredited law schools who had signed up to take the exam before June 30 to begin practicing law permanently without taking the test.

Admission to the bar under the proposal would be contingent upon passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, meeting certain character and fitness qualifications and completion of a continuing legal education course covering practice management issues and other basics.

A growing number of states, including Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, have agreed to grant diploma privilege to law school graduates in recent weeks in light of the pandemic.

In announcing last month that the state's bar exam would be moving online in the fall, the Board of Law Examiners did opt to grant a limited diploma privilege allowing graduates to begin practicing provisionally under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

David Fine, an attorney with K&L Gates LLP who chairs the Board of Law Examiners, said in a statement that the board is taking the proposals under advisement as it works hard to get ready for the upcoming online bar exam this fall.

"While we aren't able to respond substantively to each submission we receive, we appreciate and consider them carefully, and that of course includes the statements we've received from the bar associations, the deans and others," he said. "That said, the board remains committed to administering a remote exam in October, and it is focusing significant thought and energy on planning for it."

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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