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Wis. Supreme Court considers foreign lawyer rules (UPDATE)

The state Supreme Court delayed a decision Wednesday on a proposal to formalize a process in which foreign-educated lawyers would be eligible to take the Wisconsin bar exam, pending further review of the criteria.

The court voted unanimously to refer the proposal to the Board of Bar Examiners and directed the agency to converse with the state law schools and other interested parties on potential changes.

Several of the justices suggested that the proposed criteria was too narrow and could be a deterrent to qualified foreign-educated attorneys seeking licensure in Wisconsin.

“This is too restrictive,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said, “and I think many of the people who come are young graduates of legal training abroad.”

Board of Bar Examiners Director Jacquelynn Rothstein, on Wednesday morning, presented the petition to the court that sets up two options for foreign attorneys to sit for the bar.

“This would provide a consistent process,” she said, “through which foreign-educated lawyers could have an opportunity to take the bar exam in Wisconsin.”

The first option to take the Wisconsin exam would require the individual to have an English common law degree, be in good standing in his or her native jurisdiction and be in practice for at least three of the last 10 years prior to application in Wisconsin.

The second option for those applicants without a law degree from a common law country would be a professional degree in law from an accredited school, a license to practice law in his or her native jurisdiction, in practice for three of the last 10 years and completion of a master’s degree in law and coursework specific to U.S. and Wisconsin law.

In 2009, the court denied a broader petition for foreign-educated attorneys who want to take the state bar exam. In doing so, the court directed the BBE to instead consider granting waivers to those attorneys.

Of the 28 foreign-educated lawyers who have applied to take the exam during the past two years, 19 petitions were granted, according to Rothstein. Eleven people took the exam and seven passed, she said.

But some questioned the scope of the proposed criteria, modeled after a rule adopted in New York.

Abrahamson asked how many of the 11 people approved by the BBE to sit for the exam would have qualified under the proposed rule.

“It’s very reasonable sounding criteria,” she said. “But after I read it, I thought who can do that?”

Rothstein acknowledged that at least two candidates allowed to sit for the exam would have likely been disqualified under the proposed rule. One did not hold a law degree from a school recognized by a competent accrediting agency and another came from a non-common law jurisdiction and hadn’t obtained a master’s degree in law.

Justice N. Patrick Crooks also questioned the effectiveness of New York’s rule in properly vetting candidates to take the bar exam.

Of the 1,677 foreign-educated attorneys who sat for the Feb. 2012 exam, only 31 percent passed, according to Rothstein.

“I was frankly rather shocked by those statistics,” Crooks said.

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