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Maryland State Board of Law Examiners affirms plans for remote bar exam despite calls for temporary waiver amid COVID-19 pandemic

Maryland’s State Board of Law Examiners said Thursday that it believes prospective attorneys should take the bar exam remotely in October — despite calls from recent law school graduates and deans to waive the test amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision on whether to waive the two-day exam ultimately lies with the Maryland Court of Appeals, which also announced Thursday that it will accept public comment on the board’s statement before making a final determination. Comments must be submitted to the court by 4:30 p.m. Monday to be considered.

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Maryland courts already have delayed the bar exam, which usually is conducted in July. Applicants are scheduled to sit for the exam Oct. 5-6.

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

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Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington have implemented forms of “diploma privilege” this year as the pandemic complicates states’ ability to safely proctor the exam. Other states have opted for a remote bar exam, either proctored by a live person through a webcam and microphone, or by software that records the examinee and reviews the footage for suspicious behavior using artificial intelligence.

Diploma Privilege for Maryland, an advocacy group representing some of this year’s applicants to the Maryland Bar, filed a petition July 31 with the Maryland Court of Appeals requesting the temporary waiver. The petition asserted that an online exam might be unfair to those who lack access to a quiet space for two days, or to those who are primary caretakers for children or elderly family members.

“We are very encouraged by the court’s decision to accept commentary from the legal community and the public as a whole, and thankful for the opportunity to continue to engage the public on the merits of Diploma Privilege,” a representative for the group said in a statement Thursday. “We are excited that Maryland has taken a leadership role in addressing this nationwide issue.”

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

Earlier this month, deans from the state’s two law schools — the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law and the University of Baltimore School of Law — delivered a letter in support of the diploma privilege petition to Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. And 25 Maryland General Assembly members sent a similar letter of support to the court.

Still, some practicing attorneys and Republican members of the Maryland General Assembly have pushed back against the effort to temporarily adopt “diploma privilege.”

Carroll County Del. Haven Shoemaker, who took the exam in 1992, suggested in a letter Tuesday to the court that the bar gives credibility to attorneys and that clients “deserve to have confidence that their attorney possesses some level of legal acumen associated with admission to the Bar.”

The letter opposing diploma privilege also was signed by Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County; Del. Daniel Cox of Carroll and Frederick counties; Del. Susan McComas of Harford County; and Sen. Chris West of Baltimore County.

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Mary Grace Keller contributed to this article.

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