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"It's foundational to me, for a just society, that low-income people feel like they're getting a fair shake when they're dealing with tax authorities," says University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Dean Donald B. Tobin. (The Daily Record / File photo)

Court of Appeals scraps professionalism course

New lawyers required to take online course instead; multistate professionalism exam rejected

ANNAPOLIS – Beginning Jan. 1, Applicants for admission to Maryland’s bar will no longer be required to attend a one-day seminar on professionalism and legal ethics but will have to participate in a three-hour online orientation program on the state’s Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct and the proper handling of client funds, papers and trusts accounts.

Maryland’s high court voted to strike the 25-year-old professionalism-course requirement in favor of the online program Monday afternoon. The on-line program will be ready by May and be required viewing for applicants who pass Maryland’s February bar exam and seek to be sworn in in June, as well as for future bar applicants, the Court of Appeals said.

The online program was proposed by the Maryland Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which explained the program’s purpose in a note accompanying the rule the high court adopted.

“The purpose of the orientation program is to assure that newly admitted attorneys are familiar with core requirements for practicing law in Maryland, the violation of which may result in their authority to practice law being suspended or revoked,” the committee stated. “The program is not intended to take the place of broader programs on professionalism offered by law schools, bar associations, and other entities, in which the Court of Appeals strongly encourages all attorneys to participate.”

In adopting the on-line program requirement, the Court of Appeals rejected by a 5-1 vote a proposal that bar applicants take and receive a passing grade on the Multistate Professionalism Responsibility Examination, a test used in the overwhelming majority of states but not required in Maryland.

The MPRE requirement was opposed by the Donald B. Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Ronald Weich, dean at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Tobin said the multiple-choice MPRE does not fairly test one’s knowledge of legal ethics and would be a needless hurdle for applicants to overcome, as every Maryland bar exam already contains a question on professional ethics.

“We already do it better in Maryland,” Tobin told the high court regarding the testing of attorney applicants on ethics. “We just don’t need [the MPRE] and there’s no indication that it is something great.”

Ronald Weich said the UB and UM law schools strongly emphasize the teaching of legal ethics and civility, rendering a multiple choice exam unnecessary.

Weich called it “somewhat regrettable” that the high court has chosen to eliminate the one-day professionalism course and voiced his hope that the on-line program will “be meaningful and rigorous [and] not just check the box.”

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman also voiced his opposition to the MPRE, recalling that as a lecturer at Catholic University’s law school in Washington, D.C., he was urged by students to teach the ethics course based on what would be on the MPRE, as the test is required for admission to the District of Columbia bar.

Grossman said he refused the students’ requests, saying that teaching to a test ill serves the goal of addressing the gamut and nuances of ethical issues facing attorneys.

Judge Clayton Greene Jr., the only high-court member to vote for the MPRE, said young lawyers he had spoken with from other jurisdictions called the test beneficial in forcing them to think of the professional and ethical responsibilities of being an attorney.

The Maryland Professionalism Center Inc. had administered the one-day professionalism course.

Thomas E. Lynch, the center’s vice chair, told the high court Monday that the center’s work was more than just that course and should be retained as a vital part of the Maryland Judiciary and its commitment to professionalism and ethics.

Lynch said the center mentors young lawyers, provides invaluable ethical advice to attorneys upon request via a telephone hotline and fosters professionalism and civility year round.

“Our continued life is important,” Lynch said. “If it [professionalism] is not something that is reinforced, it can be lost. It can get lost in the shuffle, and out of sight, out of mind.”

The seven-member Court of Appeals has one vacancy, which will be filled in the coming days by Michele D. Hotten, whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed last week.