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Levine questions bar exam equity

I believe the current situation with two standards — diploma privilege, or passing the bar exam — is unfair, so a task force is being formed to study the rules and regulations of both standards.

Steven A. Levine,
President, State Bar of Wisconsin

Graduate from the University of Wisconsin or Marquette University Law Schools, or pass the state bar exam.

Any of those achievements will ensure admission into the Wisconsin State Bar. But the new state bar president is raising questions about the equity of making out-of-state graduates take the exam, when in-state graduates don’t have to take it.

Currently, attorneys and law school graduates from outside the state are required to pass the bar exam in order to practice in Wisconsin.

State Bar of Wisconsin President Steven A. Levine hopes to consolidate the process and is taking the initial steps by appointing a committee to review current bar admission requirements.

“I believe the current situation with two standards — diploma privilege, or passing the bar exam — is unfair, so a task force is being formed to study the rules and regulations of both standards,” said Levine, a long-time advocate of the change.

His ultimate goal is to unify the qualifications for in-state and out-of-state law school graduates to practice in Wisconsin.

“I can’t really pre-judge the findings,” stated James A. Morrison, vice-chair of the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners. “But sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take a look at issues like this and we will certainly work with the bar during the process and carefully consider any results.”

Levine, who earned his law degree from Georgetown, has no preference for which standard should be used, but anticipated a detailed investigation.

“Right now I’m compiling a list of people who have expressed interest in joining the committee and in the next few weeks I’ll have an outline of the project,” said Levine. “As far as a timetable, this could take a year, maybe more before we have a solution.”

Levine expects to hear endorsements for both standards. He anticipates hearing from the state law schools that have a vested interest in maintaining “diploma privilege” to protect their graduates.

Wisconsin is the last state to have the program.

“As a former law student and now a teacher, I think the ‘diploma privilege’ offers a couple of benefits,” stated University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Kenneth B. Davis. “From a classroom standpoint, I think the comprehensive discussions allow students to focus on specific issues. I also think the atmosphere nurtures students more than summers cramming down black letter principles, which doesn’t sound very lawyerly.”

Other than Wisconsin, West Virginia was the last state to employ “diploma privilege” which they removed in 1988. UW graduates have been exempt from taking the bar exam for 136 years, Marquette for 71.

“I’ve taken the bar exam in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan and it’s certainly not a pleasant experience,” stated Morrison, who graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Law School and practices in Marinette, Wisconsin. “But I’ve never felt that is was unfair that law students in the state are exempt from taking the exam.”

Morrison noted that because of the close relationship the state Supreme Court holds with both law schools, in regards to curriculum and training, graduates are likely to be exceptionally qualified.

Out-of-state graduates face the challenge of the state bar exam, which was administered in Madison on July 25-26. Morrison estimated that around 210 students took the exam, but speculated that only a handful were practitioners from outside of Wisconsin.

“I am one of the people who will be grading the essay portion and from a personal standpoint, I’d rather grade 200 papers rather than 400,” said Morrison.

“Ultimately, it won’t be mine or Steve’s decision. It will come down to the Supreme Court and we’ll support whatever choice is made.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached by email.

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