Paul L. Caron

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Washington Supreme Court Grants Diploma Privilege To All Bar Applicants

Supreme Court of Washington, Order Granting Diploma Privilege and Temporarily Modifying Admission & Practice Rules (June 12, 2020):

Washington Bar Logo (2020)The Court by majority hereby enters the following order establishing temporary modifications to some provisions of the current [Admission to Practice Rules]

  1. APR 3 and 4 are modified to the extent that applicants for admission to practice law who are currently registered for either the July or September 2020 bar examination and who have received a Juris Doctorate degree from an ABA accredited law school, and applicants currently registered to take the LLLT examination scheduled for July 2020, are granted the option of receiving a diploma privilege to practice in Washington. The bar examinations in July and September 2020 will still be offered for those who do not qualify for the diploma privilege and those who wish to take the exam to receive a Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) score.
  2. The diploma privilege option will be available to applicants currently registered to take the examinations who are taking the tests for the first time and those who are repeating the tests.

Letter From Seattle Law School Dean to Washington Supreme Court (June 10, 2020):

I write on behalf of the Seattle University School of Law faculty, who today voted unanimously to request that the Court afford a diploma privilege to law graduates who are currently registered for the July or September UBE administration in Washington. We are, thus, asking the Court to reconsider its May 13, 2020 decision via letter to proceed with the Summer 2020 administration of the bar exam. We urge the Court to announce that those law graduates who meet such eligibility requirements as the Court might set be admitted to the Washington State Bar without being required to take the bar examination. Our reasoning for this request for reconsideration of the Court’s prior decision is explained below.

We are appreciative of the considered and thoughtful approach the Court took in studying and originally deciding the question of whether to proceed with administration of the Summer 2020 bar exam despite the obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the stresses of dealing with the pandemic have continued unabated. Graduates of color and their families are disproportionately at risk of contracting the virus. Many of them or their families have lost jobs. And, not having secure and quiet places to study is undermining graduates’ ability to prepare for the bar examination. Up until now, our university has not been able to provide a place to study for or take the examination. Many graduates are struggling with the uncertainties regarding the administration of the exam, making a challenging preparation all the more difficult.

While the challenges posed by the pandemic were at least somewhat known at the time of the Court’s decision in May, what we didn’t know was that the world would be turned upside down again as our communities and country have reacted to the senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. These recent racial killings and the resulting unrest and social action and activism have further affected our graduates, particularly those of color. Some of our students have said they have trouble sleeping, with the sound of helicopters overhead, the thunder of flash bang grenades nearby, and the stench of tear gas drifting indoors. The emotional toll of the killings is high and taxing the graduates’ ability to effectively prepare for the bar exam. What we once described as an unprecedented situation with the pandemic has become almost surreal. We believe that the exponential impact of this crisis on top of the already stressful pandemic warrants re-looking at the decision to require bar exam passage for this set of graduates.

All of us who have passed one or more bar examinations know the significant challenge that two months of constant study poses in “normal” times. For those who have spent the final months of law school going to class online, who have had their living and working conditions disrupted, who have coped with supervising home schooling for their children, and who have helped family members who have become gravely ill from the virus and/or lost their jobs, the public health emergency has increased that challenge exponentially. With the tragedies of the past two weeks and the societal response to them, the stresses for some of our graduates have become overwhelming.

In making this request for a diploma privilege, we are mindful of the Court’s deeply appreciated and moving recent statement on racial justice. The Court wrote, “Too often in the legal profession, we feel bound by tradition and the way things have ‘always’ been. We must remember that even the most venerable precedent must be struck down when it is incorrect and harmful.” We are asking that you apply this same reasoning to the July and September administrations of the bar exam. While requiring a bar exam for licensure is supported by long precedent, doing so now may be insupportable given the extraordinary circumstances these graduates are facing. The burdens of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial unrest we are experiencing are being disproportionately borne by our graduates of color as they struggle to prepare for the bar exam. Removing the exam barrier to admission would be a step in responding to our graduates’ concerns and in bringing “greater racial justice to our system as a whole.”

In asking the Court to grant a diploma privilege, we recognize that our Seattle University School of Law 2020 graduates are not the only ones impacted by this decision. While we do not know the graduates of other schools as we know our own, we are certain that many of them are facing the same kinds of stresses as our graduates. The Court could take the position that Wisconsin does, providing admission to the Bar for graduates of Washington schools. Or, the Court could admit graduates of all accredited law schools who registered for the exam here and who otherwise meet the conditions for admission. The Court could also choose to limit the diploma privilege to those who have not previously taken the UBE in Washington.

In terms of readiness for practice, we are proud of the dedication and resilience of our Seattle U Law students and graduates and of the education we have provided to them, which as you know, includes significant externship and clinical experiences for most. Our graduates are ready and able to be excellent practitioners; we need them now more than ever to be able to provide our communities with the access to justice that motivated them to go to law school in the first place.

For the reasons articulated above, and in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the administration of the bar exam in July and September, our faculty respectfully requests that the Court provide this diploma privilege.

Finally, looking to the future, our faculty also unanimously recommended that we ask the Court to establish a study group to evaluate whether the bar examination is the best way to determine admission to the bar. We recognize, informed by our experience particularly with our Access Admission program, that there are significant additional challenges faced by our graduates of color and those who experience economic disadvantage. We are aware of studies that suggest there are biases in testing and that there are more reliable ways to determine admission to the bar. And, we have faculty members who would readily participate in a study group that the Court or the WSBA might establish.

Thank you for your consideration of our time-sensitive request, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions. We deeply appreciate the Court’s care for this next generation of lawyers and your leadership on matters of racial justice.

Annette E. Clark
Dean and Professor of Law

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The many suspended and disbarred attorneys each year, in all states, shows that being able to pass a bar exam is a worthless endeavor.

Posted by: SJ | Jun 19, 2020 3:39:53 PM

Standards are good. Arbitrary standards should be examined and improved. Few would seriously argue that all who pass the exam are competent lawyers, or that all who fail it are not.

Posted by: Keith Cohon | Jun 16, 2020 1:58:32 PM

Are our young law school graduates really this fragile? How will they ever be able to handle the greater pressures of practicing law?

Posted by: william | Jun 15, 2020 9:45:21 PM

Damn! And I had to sweat it out to pass both the Virginia and Texas Bar Exams. Life is not fair.

Posted by: Jim Brock | Jun 14, 2020 4:24:42 PM

The destruction of any and all standards continues apace.

Posted by: B | Jun 14, 2020 1:10:17 PM

Well, here it is. Be sure *not* to hire a lawyer that graduated from a law school in Washington in 2020 or after.

Posted by: Peter Nelson | Jun 14, 2020 10:53:59 AM

Is the entire law professorate and court system in Washington state unable to come up with a way to administer bar exams safely to law students who're disproportionately young and at little risk. They might as well drop the exam altogether to eliminate the risk of an applicant getting killed in an auto accident going and coming.

Posted by: Mike Perry | Jun 14, 2020 5:39:53 AM