The Louisiana Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will grant "diploma privilege" to recent law school graduates, allowing them to practice law without taking the now-canceled July 27 bar exam, which the court called off last week in light of a new spike in coronavirus cases.
The announcement set off fiercely opposing reactions: Many recent law school graduates celebrated after months of studying for the most critical exam of their careers, while three of the seven Supreme Court justices filed blistering dissents into the record, saying the state would be licensing unqualified attorneys who may be unfit to serve the public. Last year, a quarter of Louisiana law school graduates who took the July bar exam for the first time — the same classification as those now receiving "diploma privilege" — failed it.
The Supreme Court's order, issued Wednesday, designates which of those who were set to take the July 27 bar exam are "qualified candidates" to start practicing law without it. To be a "qualified candidate," applicants must have been registered for the July or October 2020 bar exams, have graduated from an American Bar Association-accredited law school and not previously sat for any other bar exam in another state.
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The lawyers receiving "diploma privilege" must also complete 25 hours of continuing legal education and a mentoring program from the Louisiana Bar Association by the end of 2021.
Others, however, will still have to take remote versions of the bar exam later this year. More experienced attorneys who may have spent years practicing in other states and who were signed up for the now-canceled exam will not be granted licenses without taking the Louisiana bar. And those who previously took the Louisiana bar exam but did not pass it cannot qualify for diploma privilege — they’ll have to endure the exam’s rigors again.
"While we know that cancellation of the in-person July 2020 bar examination was concerning to the many law school graduates who have spent countless hours in preparation, we believe that our action today is not only warranted, but necessary during this public health crisis," said Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson in a news release.
Recent Tulane Law School graduates Hailey Barnett and Hank Greenberg, who created a United for Emergency Admissions Louisiana chapter after the exam’s cancellation, basked in their victory on Wednesday. Both said the announcement came as a major relief after months of stress and studying for the bar.
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“Our advocacy worked and we highlighted what we were going through,” Barnett said.
Law school deans also celebrated the announcement after having asked the Supreme Court to allow those who were supposed to take the bar on July 27 "emergency admission" into the bar. Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Dean Madeleine Landrieu, a former appeals court judge, said that it took courage for the Supreme Court to grant that request.
“No other bar examinees have faced these kinds of circumstances,” she said Wednesday. “And yet they have soldiered on, and they have done everything the court has asked them to do.”
Still, three justices disagreed and filed dissents on the decision: Will Crain, James Genovese and Jefferson Hughes.
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Crain wrote a scathing critique of the majority's decision, recalling how Louisiana did not do away with bar exam requirements even after Hurricane Katrina. The last time the Supreme Court did so was during the Korean War, according to the Supreme Court’s order. Abandoning the requirements was an "incalculable disservice to the public, our profession, and these otherwise deserving students," he wrote.
"The excuse for gifting licenses to applicants who have not proven their competency is the COVID-19 pandemic," Crain wrote. "Will we allow that as an excuse against the victims of incompetence?"
Genovese argued there are plenty of other licensed attorneys who can service the public until recent graduates pass the bar.
"Certainly, there is no shortage of attorneys nor is there any emergency," he wrote. "The emergency, if any, is not allowing over 500 applicants into the practice of law without testing and a proof of competency."
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And Hughes said granting diploma privilege "is an overreaction to the earlier overreaction to the virus," which caused the bar exam to be canceled.
Landrieu said she’s less concerned about “the few who might not have passed” in comparison to those who she said were qualified to be attorneys but were likely to fail the bar because of the circumstances around them: those grieving coronavirus deaths, fighting racial injustices, having inadequate home environments to prepare for and take the exam remotely.
Louisiana bar passage rates are generally the highest among graduates of LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center. Last year, for example, 85.6% of LSU Law’s first-time test takers passed the bar exam. Tulane had 78.6% pass, Loyola had 74.8% pass and Southern had 64% pass.
In some other states that have adopted diploma privilege rules, those who qualify for getting their license without taking the bar have had to graduate from law schools with a certain historical bar passage rate. In Oregon, for example, out-of-state law school graduates can receive “diploma privilege” only if their American Bar Association-accredited law school had an 86% bar exam passage rate or higher for first-time test-takers during 2019. If a Louisiana law school graduate was trying to move to Oregon, only those from LSU Law would qualify for the necessary bar passage rates — assuming they rounded up.