Fla. High Court Won't OK No-Exam Path To Bar Admittance

By Carolina Bolado
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Law360 (September 3, 2020, 2:09 PM EDT) -- The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a petition for an emergency rule allowing recent law graduates to practice without having to pass the bar exam, saying that the proposed six months of supervised practice can't substitute for bar exam passage.

The state's highest court said it would not grant diploma privilege to law graduates who are dealing with a delayed exam date thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic because it "has determined and still believes that law school graduation alone does not sufficiently demonstrate the knowledge, ability and preparedness necessary to admit a law graduate to the practice of law in Florida."

The court pointed to the temporary program it recently set up that will allow some applicants to work under the supervision of a licensed attorney until one month after the February 2021 bar exam results are released.

"It is the court's sincere hope that this program will help ameliorate some of the burdens of the delayed examination for many of the applicants," the justices said. "In furtherance of that hope, the court joins Florida Bar President Dori Foster-Morales in calling on all Florida lawyers who are able to employ and supervise qualified applicants participating in the program to do so."

The in-person July bar exam was postponed until Aug. 19 as the state grappled with a rise in COVID-19 cases. But that exam, set to be administered online, was canceled less than three days before the test due to repeated problems with the testing software.

The cancellation sent law school graduates scrambling to figure out whether promised job offers would be withdrawn and how they would pay for expenses until a new exam date in October.

On Aug. 20, a group of more than 50 Florida attorneys as well as Florida Bar applicants waiting to take the exam filed a petition with the state Supreme Court asking for an emergency rule that would allow recent graduates to practice law under the supervision of a Florida attorney in good standing. After six months, if the supervising attorney attests to the graduate's competency, he or she could continue practicing law.

But the Supreme Court said this would not be enough to guarantee competency.

In a concurring opinion, Justice C. Alan Lawson tried to take some of the heat off of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which has faced criticism from law graduates who are frustrated with the uncertainty surrounding the bar exam. Justice Lawson said the board has acted at the court's direction and is made up of volunteers who are putting in long hours trying to figure out how to administer an exam during a pandemic.

"Our failure to administer a secure and reliable bar exam in July and August is bitterly frustrating for the board, for the court, and for applicants," Justice Lawson said. "Those frustrations, however, do not justify opening Florida's legal profession to most bar applicants registered for the July exam without a reliable assessment of their preparedness to practice law."

Matthew Dietz, the litigation director for Disability Independence Group Inc. and one of the attorneys who filed the petition with the high court, said he is disappointed "for the over 3,000 applicants who will not be able to get their lives started, jobs, health insurance and pay off huge loans."

He said that if the vendor of the abbreviated bar exam set for Oct. 13 fails, he hopes that the state Supreme Court will reconsider the proposal.

The petitioners are represented by Matthew Dietz of Disability Independence Group and Brian L. Tannebaum PA.

The case is In re: Petition to Amend the Rules of the Supreme Court Relating to Admissions to the Bar and the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, case number SC20-1236, in the Supreme Court of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Craig Clough. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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