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Md. high court sets Monday deadline for comments on bar exam

Maryland’s top court will accept comments until 4:30 Monday afternoon on its plan to administer an abbreviated bar exam online Oct. 5 and 6 due to continuing concern about spreading the COVID-19 virus, the Maryland Judiciary stated Thursday.

The Court of Appeals’ deadline comes amid calls that requiring the online bar exam amid the pandemic would be unfair to applicants who lack the financial or at-home resources to take the test remotely. These critics, including Maryland’s law deans, said the court should consider admitting applicants to the bar — just this once — if they have graduated from an American Bar Association accredited law school and pass the usual character background check.

But Republican lawyer-legislators have decried the “diploma privilege” proposal, saying a bar exam should remain a rite of admission for new attorneys despite the public health emergency.

Comments on the planned remote bar exam plan should be directed to the Court of Appeals’ clerk’s office, the Maryland Judiciary stated.

The email address is COACLERKOFTHE COURT@MDCOURTS.GOV.

The clerk’s office is at 361 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis, MD 21401.

The planned online, remotely proctored exam will be half as long as the usual 12-hour test and be delivered by a technology vendor, the State Board of Law Examiners has said.

The online exam will consist of fewer questions but cover the same subject areas as the usual exam.

The online test 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.

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 State Board of Law Examiners stated. However, the board added, it has reached reciprocity agreements with the District of Columbia and 10 states — Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee — as of Thursday.

Applicants who opt for a diploma privilege alternative for admission – should it be adopted — would be forgoing the reciprocity with other states that passing the remote exam would provide.

Maryland’s top court approved the move to a remotely administered October test in an order issued in June at SBLE’s recommendation.

In a joint letter this month, the deans of Maryland’s two law schools said an exam would be unfair because “bar applicants need quiet spaces to study for the exam, and ultimately require a quiet space with a reliable internet connection to sit for a remote exam,” which not all candidates have during the pandemic.

“Many recent graduates will lack such surroundings due to their living arrangements, family circumstances and socioeconomic status,” 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.

The deans’ letter to 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.”

Twenty-five Maryland legislators echoed the deans in their support of diploma privilege this year. In a letter to the Court of Appeals, the lawmakers stated that admission to the bar could be tied to a requirement that newly admitted attorneys provide legal representation to the rising number of needy Marylanders.

“Now that courts are reopening, many struggling residents will face eviction and debt collection proceedings without the benefit of counsel,” the letter stated.

“Diploma privilege could provide an incentive for recent graduates otherwise unable to practice law to serve on the frontlines of our economic recovery,” the legislators added. “More than ever, our state desperately needs its law school graduates to help confront the unprecedented challenges we face.”

The letter was spearheaded by Dels. Julie Palakovich Carr and Vaughn M. Stewart, both Montgomery County Democrats.

But a group of five Republican legislators, all licensed Maryland attorneys, pressed the high court to hold fast to a bar exam requirement.

“It is certainly true that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we have known it,” they wrote in a letter this week.

“We believe, however, that in order to instill faith in our system of justice, recent law school graduates should be subjected to an examination of the basic tenets of law just as generations of prospective candidates for admission to the bar have been before, even in times of turmoil,” the letter stated. “The bar exam is not a hazing ritual, as you well know. It is designed to ensure that candidates seeking admission to practice before our courts have some basic, universal proficiency just as other professions, i.e. CPAs, plumbers, electricians, etc., are required to exhibit, notwithstanding the global pandemic.”

The letter was signed by Dels. Jason C. Buckel, R-Allegany; Daniel L. Cox, R-Frederick and Carroll; Susan McComas, R-Harford; and Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll; and Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County.

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