Philadelphia Bar Echoes Statewide Call to Allow Grads to Practice Without Taking Bar Exam

Law school graduates around the country are in limbo. They have law degrees, but they cannot practice law. 

Bar exams have been repeatedly re-scheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Pennsylvania, the July 2020 bar exam is now scheduled for October 2020. 

States are taking different approaches to deal with the issue. Many law students around the country are petitioning for diploma privilege. 

A petition is pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court requesting emergency licensure. It applies to October bar exam candidates who meet specific requirements. The petitioners argue that emergency licensure is an “adequate, less costly, and more reliable alternative” to taking the bar exam during the pandemic. 

Many groups have stated their support for diploma privilege. Pennsylvania continues to struggle with the issue.

What is Diploma Privilege?

Diploma privilege admits law school graduates to practice law without taking the bar exam. States may set requirements in addition to obtaining a Juris Doctorate from an ABA-accredited law school for diploma privilege. 

Several states have approved diploma privilege as a way to deal with issues related to taking the bar exam during a pandemic. Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Louisiana have recently adopted rules for diploma privilege. The matter is being considered in several other states.

There are many arguments for and against diploma privilege. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the petition filed on August 17, 2020.

Diploma Privilege – Pennsylvania Bar Association vs. Philadelphia Bar Association 

The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task Force issued a recommendation on April 17, 2020. The PBA COVID-19 Task Force recommended that law students who graduated in May 2020 receive a provisional license with certain requirements. If the graduates complete requirements set forth by the Board of Law Examiners, the graduates receive a full license without taking the bar exam.

On July 24, 2020, the PBA COVID-19 Task Force issued another recommendation. In that recommendation, the Task Force recommended requesting that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners offer diploma privilege to certain students.

Diploma privilege would be offered to a student who:

  • Graduated from an ABA-accredited law school between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2020
  • Registered to take the Pennsylvania Bar Exam on or before July 30, 2020
  • Passed the MPRE or passes the MPRE within a specific time
  • Met the standards regarding Character and Fitness qualifications
  • Is not scheduled to take the bar examination in any other jurisdiction that uses the MBE before the end of October 2020
  • Has not failed any bar exam in any state
  • Completed the Pennsylvania Bridge the Gap course

The Task Force acknowledged that any path to licensure needs to balance the realities faced by recent law school graduates and the need to maintain integrity in the legal profession.

In a statement by the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association also believes that recent law school graduates who meet qualifications for admission to the Pennsylvania Bar should receive diploma privilege. However, it believes that the diploma privilege should be limited. Individuals would need to take and pass the Pennsylvania Bar Exam to obtain a permanent license to practice law in the state.

The Outcome of the Petition for Diploma Privilege Unknown 

According to one source, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor stated that the bar exam in October 2020 would go forth, and diploma privilege would not be granted. That was before the filing of the above petition seeking emergency licensure. 

Therefore, it is unknown what might happen when the Court considers the petition. However, based on the Chief Justice’s comment, the petition may have little chance of being approved. 

Law students in Pennsylvania, like law students in most other states, continue to wait to know their fate. They are another example of the many consequences of dealing with a pandemic. 

The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Legal Community

Graduating law students are not the only individuals in the legal community impacted by COVID-19. Law firms have had to adjust how they interact with clients. Because of concerns for the spread of the coronavirus, many law firms have transitioned into teleconferences.

While many courts are now open, there is a backlog of cases because courts initially shut down except for emergency matters. In many areas of the country, the virus continues to keep some courts partially closed. 

Balancing personal safety and the need to proceed with legal matters can be challenging. Our personal injury lawyers continue to actively work on cases to help clients recover the compensation they need and deserve after getting hurt in car accidents and suffering avoidable injuries in the city. Like other law firms throughout the country, we have learned how to cope with concerns about COVID-19 as we continue to provide legal services to individuals in our community.