JURIST editorial, The Diploma Privilege Manifesto:
A spectre is haunting the American legal profession – the spectre of diploma privilege.
Facing the psychological and physical trauma of COVID-19, and buoyed by growing calls for diversity and equity in the wake of centuries of racial and social injustice blithely and sometimes viciously perpetuated by lawyers in positions of power, a new generation of would-be American attorneys is calling for the bar examination to be eliminated as a barrier to professional entry. Instead, they argue, bar admission should depend on graduation from an accredited law school. Some exponents of diploma privilege are content with presenting it as an administrative convenience that would allow law graduates to work and serve their communities sooner rather than later during the current pandemic and its attendant economic downturn. Others dare to suggest that it is an appropriate long-term strategy for the making of a better bar. ...
If substantive change in bar admission procedure is going to come, it will not come from above. It will not come from bar associations or boards of bar examiners fully invested in a longstanding professional gatekeeping system specifically designed to protect, empower, and enrich established lawyers in good times and bad. Neither will it come from law schools hell-bent on gaining rankings distinction by pumping up their bar passage percentages, although change could ultimately be to their advantage. Instead, if change comes, it will come from below.
That it has not yet come reflects a reality that the bar exam has only contributed to – the endemic competitive ethos within law schools that for well over a century has set law student against law student for grades, class ranking, law review positions and ultimately bar passage, an ethos which has hitherto helped to render law students atomized and voiceless. There are signs that this is now starting to change. COVID-19 and lockdowns have suddenly catapulted all of us into a hyperconnected virtual world where traditionally impossible face-to-face meetings at distance are but a Zoom call away. Hungry for community and physically shut out of their own schools, law students are reaching out to each other and looking for common causes. Law student-driven “pop-up” coalitions like United For Diploma Privilege (DP4A) are natural creatures of the hyperconnected post-COVID Net, as are collaborative media operations like JURIST that join law students from different law schools together for the greater good.
So there should be change. Maybe there can be change. Maybe – as demonstrated in so many contexts in the past few months of this pandemic – change can and will come sooner than we think. Professional certification of lawyers in the public interest need not be abandoned. But the bar exam is not a historical inevitability. Diploma privilege offers an alternative path to a freer, fairer, and more inclusive professional future.
Law students across America, unite!
United for Diploma Privilege