Pa. Bar Association Board Recommends Diploma Privilege

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (July 30, 2020, 8:39 PM EDT) -- The Pennsylvania Bar Association's governing board recommended Wednesday that the state allow this year's crop of law school graduates to begin practicing law without sitting for the bar exam, in light of the ongoing threat of the coronavirus.

David Schwager, a partner with Chariton Schwager & Malak who serves as the PBA's current president, told Law360 that the unprecedented move to allow certain law school graduates to sit out the bar exam made sense given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic.

"Even though it seems like an extreme idea, it's not so extreme this year in light of all that's happened," he told Law360 during an interview Thursday.

Pennsylvania would join a growing number of states opting to grant diploma privilege to law school graduates in light of the pandemic, following similar moves in Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Under the plan endorsed by the PBA on Wednesday, graduates of accredited law schools who had signed up to take the bar exam prior to June 30 would be eligible to begin practicing law contingent on passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination and meeting certain character and fitness qualifications.

Qualifying individuals would also need to complete a continuing legal education course covering practice management, fiduciary requirements and other fundamentals before being cleared under the program.

Individuals who previously failed the bar examination, either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere, would not be eligible for diploma privilege.

Schwager said he believes the proposal struck an appropriate balance between the need to protect recent law school graduates and ensuring that only competent and qualified candidates are admitted to the bar.

"We're committed to the integrity of the profession and ensuring that the public receives the type of representation to which it's entitled," he said. "We view this as an alternative path to getting a law license that balances all those concerns that are ordinarily paramount with the very unusual needs and realities that are faced by this year's law school graduates."

According to statistics from the state's Board of Law Examiners, the passage rate among first-time bar exam takers last summer was nearly 81%.

Against the backdrop of the push for diploma privilege in Pennsylvania, the Board of Law Examiners said earlier this month that it was delaying the next bar exam until October and joining a growing list of states opting to move the test online.

Administering the test online, however, is not without its own challenges.

In Michigan, the first state to actually administer a bar exam online, an apparent cyberattack launched in the midst of the test on Tuesday left individuals unable to access the second portion of the exam and forced the state's Supreme Court to extend the amount of time allotted for the test.

David Fine, a partner with K&L Gates LLP who serves as chair of the Board of Law Examiners, told Law360 that the recommendation had been taken under advisement.

"The board is carefully reviewing all of the comments it has received, including the PBA's resolution," he said. "At the same time, we are carefully preparing for the October remote exam."

Outside of Pennsylvania, a group of New York-based public defender agencies including Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo signed a letter last week urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to support a diploma privilege bill currently making its way through the statehouse.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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