Legal Education

Utah is first state to grant diploma privilege during novel coronavirus pandemic

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Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the Utah Supreme Court approved temporary diploma privilege Tuesday for individuals who are scheduled to take the July bar exam and graduated from ABA-accredited law schools with first-time bar passage rates of at least 86%.

The order also applies to attorneys licensed to practice law in other states. Candidates must have submitted an application for the Utah bar exam on or before April 1 and graduated from law school by June 30, according to the April 21 order.

“This is a temporary accommodation designed to provide relief to certain applicants who had applied to take the Utah bar examination in July 2020 but will be unable to do so because of public health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the court wrote in a statement.

The order does not apply to individuals who take the July bar exam in other states. Also, it requires 360 hours of supervised practice by a licensed attorney who has been in practice at least seven years, with at least two years in Utah. Qualified candidates who meet all the requirements will be admitted to the Utah State Bar no later than Dec. 31, according to the order.

Also, the order does not apply to people who have failed a bar exam and are not already licensed to practice law in other jurisdictions, says Gordon Smith, the dean at Brigham Young University’s law school.

“This is for people who haven’t had their bite at the apple yet,” he says, regarding bar candidates who are not licensed in other states.

Judith Gundersen, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops and produces the attorney licensing tests used by most U.S. jurisdictions, says Utah was the first state to consider emergency bar admission with no exam.

Wisconsin is the only state that has a long-standing diploma privilege rule, and it only applies to in-state graduates.

On Wednesday, Gundersen told the ABA Journal that the NCBE is dedicated to supporting all courts and bar admission offices in their duties to protect the public.

“We have already set forth the measurement, equity and public protection implications associated with various licensure options during this time of crisis,” she wrote in an email. “We remain committed to assisting the court and the committee by providing high-quality exam materials should the court decide to go forward with an administration of the uniform bar exam in the fall for those candidates who seek a portable score.”

Law school deans in Iowa made similar requests for diploma privilege, as did Carla Pratt, dean of the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. In Nebraska, diploma privilege was one of several options that deans asked the state supreme court to consider if the July bar exam is postponed.

Meanwhile, some states have instead opted for limited practice in which recent law school graduates may practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney until a bar exam can be safely administered.

Also, the ABA’s Board of Governors urged states in an April 7 resolution to adopt emergency rules authorizing limited practice with lawyer supervision for recent law school graduates if the novel coronavirus pandemic causes cancellations of July bar exams.

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