Amid the pandemic, Maryland should permit bar applicants to forgo this fall’s online exam and be admitted if they have graduated from an American Bar Association accredited law school, pass the state’s existing tests of professional responsibility and Maryland law, and complete a character evaluation, the deans of both Maryland law schools stated Wednesday.
In a joint letter to Maryland’s top judge, the deans said the state’s COVID-19-compelled administration of an abbreviated online exam in early October would be unfair to bar applicants who lack the financial or at-home resources to take the test remotely during the “unprecedented obstacles” of the public health emergency.
“Bar applicants need quiet places to study for the exam, and ultimately require a quiet space with a reliable internet connection to sit for a remote exam,” wrote University of Baltimore School of Law Dean Ronald Weich and Donald B. Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “Many recent graduates will lack such surroundings due to their living arrangements, family circumstances and socioeconomic status.”
The deans’ letter to Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera followed a similar request for a “diploma privilege plus system of admission” by a group of recent graduates of Maryland’s and other ABA-accredited law schools who have applied for the state bar. Weich and Tobin stated in their message that they support the graduates’ request “at least on a temporary basis” amid the havoc the virus has wrought to the health, employment, housing and food vulnerability of many of them or their families.
“We are particularly concerned that the consequences of the virus do not fall evenly among our graduates,” the deans wrote.
“We know that social factors, like economic standing and family support, already have an impact on bar success,” they added. “Recent studies indicate that efforts to improve the diversity of the legal profession continue to lag. A bar exam administered under current conditions may distort these inequities even further.”
The states of Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington have adopted diploma privilege bar admission for law school graduates in light of the pandemic, Weich and Tobin stated. Wisconsin has long admitted lawyers based on their having graduated from either of the state’s two law schools, at the University of Wisconsin or Marquette University, the deans added.
Weich and Tobin stated they have “long supported the concept of diploma privilege” based on the quality and rigor of their schools’ curricula.
“We believe our academic programs are strong enough to prepare graduates to practice law effectively and ethically,” they wrote. “Both of our schools emphasize experiential education, including nationally renowned clinics and plentiful externships in which our students gain practical experience to augment their classroom studies.”
The Court of Appeals will make the final decision on whether to adopt diploma privilege and, if so, how broad it will be.
“Wisconsin limits this benefit to graduates of its two law schools, and Maryland might do the same,” Weich stated via email Thursday. “The Court (of Appeals) is familiar with the strong academic programs at UB and UM, and might be comfortable limiting diploma privilege to the schools it knows best.”
Barbera and the State Board of Law Examiners declined to comment Thursday on the deans’ letter.
Maryland’s in person two-day bar exam originally scheduled for the end of July at the Baltimore Convention Center was switched by the Court of Appeals in June to online administration Oct. 5 and 6 due to continuing concern about spreading COVID-19.
Passing grades on the remote exam will qualify for admission to the Maryland bar but will not be transferable to the more than 30 states with which Maryland has reciprocity through its usual administration of the Uniform Bar Exam, the SBLE stated. However, the board added it has reached reciprocity agreements with the District of Columbia and eight states — Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee — as of Thursday.
Applicants who opt for a diploma privilege plus alternative for admission – should it be adopted — would be forgoing the reciprocity with other states that passing the remote exam would provide.
The online, remotely proctored exam will be half as long, consist of fewer questions but cover the same subject areas as the usual 12-hour test.
The online exam will be administered in four 90-minute sessions over the two days and consist of a Multistate Performance Test item, three Multistate Essay Exam items and 100 Multistate Bar Examination Questions prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops the uniform test, SBLE stated.
By contrast, the bar exam generally consists of two performance items, such as drafting a contract provision; six essays and 200 multistate questions.
The Court of Appeals approved the move to a remotely administered test at SBLE’s recommendation.