Paul L. Caron

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Diploma Privilege Manifesto

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

Coronavirus, Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


I get that fear is a powerful driver, but why would law schools and recent graduates want to kill the goose that makes the legal profession valuable? Law is a desirable, respected profession because it is knowledge based, regulated, and exclusive.

Welcome to the lawyers as realtors world! What a shame.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jul 16, 2020 11:28:11 AM

My thoughts turn to this current generation where "everyone gets a trophy" and entitlement. Doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses in the middle of this pandemic are similarly needed. Shall we waive the "boards" and examinations for these professions as well? Will the next form of inquiry be "are you a diploma privilege lawyer?"

Posted by: Tom N. | Jul 16, 2020 12:23:30 PM

This bit of the manifesto deserves reproduction, if I may:

"Written bar examinations were stressed all the more as bar leaders attempted to suppress new forms of legal education that offered quicker and easier entry to a legal career. In the 1890s a growing number of largely rural and small-town law students who had taken courses in a new wave of correspondence law schools began sitting for bar exams in many states. Benefiting from forward-looking instructional methods that would eventually be embraced by commercial bar review companies, these disciples of late 19th century “distance learning” (whose ranks notably included a disproportionate number of women and minorities) initially enjoyed considerable success. In the early 20th century they were joined by a veritable tidal wave of urban law students, many of immigrant stock, who studied law at night when they were not working for a living.

The bar authorities turned to the bar exam to head these incursions off at the pass.... The reworking and mainstreaming of case-based written bar examinations in the 1920s coincided with efforts by nativist bar association leaders to limit bar access by immigrants and minorities at other points. The American Bar Association Root Report of 1921 strenuously insisted that law schools only admit students who had completed two years of college. Fearing that even admission to law school by college grades would result in an “inferior student body ethically and socially”, as the Yale Law dean of the time delicately put it, Yale and Columbia law schools experimented with proto-LSAT “aptitude tests” for prospective students that grew directly out of the eugenics movement and the overtly discriminatory Army Intelligence Test developed for the US Army in World War I."

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 16, 2020 6:30:27 PM

Something that’s earned isn’t a privilege

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Jul 17, 2020 3:11:05 AM

The Bar examination is a good thing. On the other hand, this is nonsense drivel:

"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 already sufficient numbers of unqualified and incompetent lawyers. We need more?

Posted by: Diogenes | Jul 17, 2020 4:12:54 AM

Um, wouldn't removing the standardized test afterward *increase* incentives for students to focus on minimizing one another's class ranks versus cooperating to learn more?

And why put one's faith in an opaque and expensive "educational" establishment that maintains clearly non-law-related, arguably classist or worse entrance exams, prerequisites, and admissions decisionmaking, rather than opening up access to an at least somewhat relevant examination we can demand our legislators get improved?

Posted by: Anand Desai | Jul 17, 2020 9:04:24 PM