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Bar applicants can take test in fall or apprentice first, Md. court says

(The Daily Record file photo)

(The Daily Record file photo)

Maryland bar applicants will have the option this fall of taking an abbreviated, COVID-19-compelled online bar exam in October – and becoming licensed attorneys following passage – or serving as temporary legal practitioners under the watchful eyes of supervising attorneys before taking the test at its next scheduled administration in February, the state’s top court said Friday.

Applicants can also simply choose to put off taking the exam until February or later after notifying the State Board of Law Examiners.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals rejected a proposal to permit bar applicants to be admitted this year — in light of the pandemic — without taking the exam, provided they have graduated from an American Bar Association accredited law school and complete a character background check.

The high court said it “carefully considered” the “diploma privilege plus” proposal but ultimately said an exam is necessary for full admission to the Maryland bar, either in October or in February after an apprenticeship.

The rejected proposal had been made by recent law school graduates and the deans of Maryland’s two law schools: Ronald Weich, of the University of Baltimore School of Law, and Donald B. Tobin, of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

Weich and Tobin had also endorsed the court-adopted option of temporary supervised authorization, citing concerns about administering a test amid a once-in-a-century public health crisis.

The Court of Appeals, in giving applicants a choice, recognized the efforts of the State Board of Law Examiners and the National Conference of Bar Examiners to establish a licensing exam that can be given remotely to address the safety concerns about spreading the virus by administering the test in large groups.

“(T)he court is satisfied that the board has, in coordination with bar admission authorities in other jurisdictions and the NCBE, developed a remote bar examination that offers the best alternative, based on all available information, for retaining the integrity of the Maryland Bar Exam consistent with the policy stated in the Maryland Rules,” the high court stated. “(T)he court believes that, for those applicants who remain uncomfortable with taking the October 2020 remote bar exam during the current pandemic, it is also in the interest of justice to offer an option to apply for a temporary special authorization for supervised practice of law in Maryland, in lieu of taking the October 2020 remote bar exam.”

The planned online, remotely proctored exam on Oct. 5 and 6 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 Monday.

Applicants slated to take the online test may opt instead to begin practicing law under the supervision of attorneys, provided they notify the State Board of Law Examiners by Sept. 21. The applicants must have received a passing grade on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam and the online Maryland Law Component of the state bar exam, which can be taken until passed, and have passed a character review.

The “Temporary Supervised Practice” option will not be available to applicants who have failed the Maryland bar exam more than twice.

Applicants are responsible for finding an attorney to supervise them. The supervisor must have been a practicing attorney for the past five years, have never been suspended or disbarred  and is not the subject of any pending disciplinary matter.

The supervising attorney may supervise no more than two temporary practitioners and must review, sign and file any legal documents prepared by them.

Applicants granted temporary special authorization cannot hold themselves out to the public as licensed Maryland attorneys.

“Temporary Special Authorization is not admission to the Maryland Bar,” the Court of Appeals stated. “Temporary Special Authorization confers no rights or presumptions bearing on the applicant’s pending application for admission as a licensed attorney, and in no way restricts the board’s or the Court of Appeals’ authority to determine an applicant’s admission to the practice of law in Maryland.”

The Court of Appeals and the State Board of Law Examiners can terminate the temporary special authorization to practice law “at any time without notice or hearing and without any showing of cause,” the high court stated. The temporary status also terminates if the person does not sit for the bar exam scheduled for February or fails that exam, the court added.

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