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Maryland law school deans, recent graduates urge state to temporarily waive bar exam

Maryland law school deans and recent graduates are calling on the state’s highest court to waive the bar exam for new lawyers, citing concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applicants to the Maryland Bar, who are scheduled to sit for the Oct. 5-6 bar exam, took the unusual step of filing a petition July 31 with the Maryland Court of Appeals requesting the waiver.

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Deans Donald Tobin of the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and Ronald Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law also delivered a letter Wednesday in support of the petition to Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

“I feel that it’s an appropriate ask for the court,” Weich said Friday. “The courts in Maryland have done a very good and thoughtful job responding to the virus. ... This is one important aspect that they need to look at.”

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Barbera could not immediately be reached for comment Friday. Representatives of the Maryland judiciary did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prior to the pandemic, Wisconsin was the only state that allowed graduates from its two accredited law schools to secure a law license without taking the bar exam — a practice known as “diploma privilege,” Weich said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizes states’ ability to safely proctor the two-day exam, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Louisiana have temporarily adopted “diploma privilege.”

Weich and Tobin said they supported the idea of “diploma privilege” before the pandemic arrived.

“For a long time, legal scholars and administrators have questioned whether the bar exam is the best entry point [for attorneys],” Tobin said. “Those things just get highlighted during a crisis like this.”

Should Maryland courts decide to waive bar exam requirements, law license applicants who have graduated from accredited law schools would still need to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, designed to measure a candidate’s understanding of the professional conduct of lawyers. Applicants would also need to take an online exam testing knowledge of distinctions in Maryland law, and submit to a character and fitness screening.

Maryland courts have already delayed the bar exam, which is usually scheduled in July. Weich said the exam will be proctored virtually, which could pose a challenge to recent law school grads who do not have reliable internet service or lack access to a quiet space for two uninterrupted days.

Some bar applicants attached personal impact statements to the petition, describing lost post-graduate job offers because of the delays to the exam. Others said they were concerned the online exam’s strict rules were unfair to those who are primary caretakers for children or elderly family members.

University of Baltimore graduate Emma Dorris said she used to picture studying for the bar exam in the hushed halls of a law library. These days, she’s preparing for the October test in the second bedroom of her street-level apartment in Baltimore County.

“It’s very loud sometimes with neighbors and people coming in and out of the hallway and landscapers doing work outside,” Dorris said. “I don’t really have a choice. It’s the only place I have.”

Dorris worries that unexpected noise during test taking could lead to her disqualification.

“We’re all afraid we’re going to fail the exam because of something like that,” she said.

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