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D.C. Weighs Alternative Licensing for Law School Grads

July 30, 2020, 10:55 PM

The District of Columbia’s top court is weighing whether to join a small group of states allowing “diploma privilege” by granting recent law school graduates the right to gain a D.C. law license without taking a bar exam.

Action by the D.C. Court of Appeals comes as groups within the American Bar Association are petitioning its House of Delegates to urge states to end plans for future in-person bar exams during the pandemic, because of risks to “long-term health—or life.”

The federal city’s highest district court is seeking public comment over the next two weeks on diploma privilege and provisional licensing—a kind of compromise that would mandate newly licensed lawyers eventually pass the bar, according to a July 29 notice.

The court will continue to hold its scheduled online exam Oct. 5-6, according to the notice, but conceded that it recognized the need to consider possible alternatives.

“Given the importance of the issue, the court wishes to receive comments from the public before deciding how to proceed with the requests at issue,” the court notice said.

Diploma privilege, if granted, would place the district among a small but growing number of states, including Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Louisiana, that have allowed the alternative in light of Covid-19 and the outcry over health risks affiliated with in-person tests, and the notion that online exams may be technically unworkable.

The D.C. court is responding to petitions, including at least one from the D.C. chapter of United for Diploma Privilege, a national movement founded in March 2020.

The group, which calls itself “DP4DC,” said it’s pleased that its efforts at least prompted the court to look at the issue.

“DP4DC is thrilled that the Court is taking the time and seeking out the necessary resources to make an informed decision that will serve the needs of applicants, lawyers, employers, and our future clients,” the group said in a statement. “This is a meaningful opportunity for the Court to listen to the stories of applicants and the opinions of professionals.”

D.C. first delayed its in-person test until September, then canceled it in favor of an online test in October.

The ABA resolution was submitted to the House of Delegates—its governing body—by the Virgin Islands Bar Association, which was joined by the ABA’s law student division and one other section.

Delegates will debate the resolution next week, during the ABA’s first-ever virtual annual meeting. Though it urges the states to act, the resolution, even if it passes, could not mandate any state to change its rules—decisions most often made by state-level supreme courts or bar licensing authorities.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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