Hundreds of law students in Washington state opt out of taking bar exam, earn law license through ‘diploma privilege’

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WASHINGTON – In Washington state, hundreds of law students opted out of taking their bar exam and were still able to receive their law licenses through what the bar association is calling “diploma privilege.”

Under a recent state Supreme Court decision to temporarily waive the test requirement due to concerns about COVID-19, these students are now able to legally practice law in the state of Washington solely on the merit of their degrees from accredited law schools.

According to Jennifer Olegario, a spokeswoman for the bar association, 571 applicants chose to receive their law licenses through the “diploma privilege” option. However, only those who were registered to take their bar exam this week or in September were given the option.

Fewer than 80 applicants took the two-day Washington State bar exam at sites in Tacoma and Spokane. Olegario said that about 50 more law students are expected to take the exam in September. The bar scheduled the second session and spilt up the first exam test groups between Tacoma and Spokane to allow for social distancing and to decrease the odds of spreading the coronavirus.

Following a signed petition from the faculty of Seattle University’s School of Law, the Washington Supreme Court granted the “diploma privilege” back in June. Initially, back in May, instead of granting “diploma privilege,” the court decided to lower the passing score for the bar exam and added an additional exam date in September.

The court decided to reconsider their first decision after receiving the petition from Seattle University School of Law. The petition was backed by an unanimous faculty vote.

The court’s order essentially suspends the requirement to pass the bar exam, thus enabling aspiring lawyers to begin practicing law and earning income more quickly.

In the letter to the court, the school’s dean, Annette Clark wrote that their students’ live had been “turned upside-down” by the pandemic and the civil unrest that has followed the “senseless killings” of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Clarke wrote:

“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.”

She wrote:

“The emotional toll of the killings is high and taxing on the students’ ability to effectively prepare for the bar exam.”

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A law student from Gonzaga University, Allison Drescher, 25, spent three years preparing for the bar exam, but was one of the students who chose to opt out and receive her credentials by “diploma privilege” instead. 

Drescher is originally from Orondo, Washington and on July 13th, she recited the Oath of Attorney at the Spokane County Courthouse. Soon, she will begin clerking for U.S. District Judge Rosanna Peterson in Spokane.

Drescher still plans to take the bar exam in Idaho in February. She knows that it is not required, but expressed two concerns as to why she still wants to take and pass the exam. She said she wants the pride and satisfaction of passing a test she’s spent years preparing for.

She also said that she’s concerned about her ability to progress as a lawyer because some in the field might not take her seriously if she does not take and pass the exam.

She said in a statement:

“In my own opinion, I think what I do after law school and in my work will speak for itself, but I just don’t want to have any question marks next to my name. You do have those people who are adamant in thinking that it’s a rite of passage that every young lawyer should have to accomplish.”

According to Drescher, those who are getting the law licenses through the “diploma privilege” are not just being “handed” a license. In addition to law school, students must take and pass a legal ethics test called the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Examination. Drescher took and passed her exam a year prior.

Students are also being required to take another test featuring 60 multiple-choice questions specifically on Washington state law. The bar association also conducts thorough background checks to review the “character and fitness” of each applicant.

Drescher said:

“I think the layperson may not really understand just how rigorous the three years of legal education are and just how difficult it is to focus in the middle of a pandemic for a test of this degree. It’s really unprecedented and I think that’s why the Supreme Court took unprecedented action.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to temporarily wave the bar exam requirement has definitely been seen as controversial in some legal communities. Sara Maleki, a personal injury lawyer who earned her law degree from Gonzaga in 2009, said she recognized the value in the bar exam while preparing to try her first case.

She said:

“The mental marathon of the test not only ensures new attorneys are familiar with certain areas of law, but it also gives them a sense of the endurance needed to work effectively.”

She added:

“If they’re going to look at two candidates with equal credentials, but one has passed the bar and the other one hasn’t, I have to think most firms will be more interested in the candidate that took and passed the bar.”

Drescher said that more than any test, her experiences as a clerk in Spokane County Superior Court and as an intern at a local law firm are what have given her real-world practical experience. She said:

“Those experiences gave me real-world practical experience that a standardized test does not give you. The bar exam measures how much you can learn and memorize and conform to the standards that the bar exam graders want to see.”

 

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