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Diploma Privilege or Bust: Delayed Bar Exam Would Harm Graduating Law Students and Vulnerable Pennsylvanians in Light of COVID-19
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Diploma Privilege or Bust: Delayed Bar Exam Would Harm Graduating Law Students and Vulnerable Pennsylvanians in Light of COVID-19

Members of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable communities are at risk of losing access to essential legal services in the face of the unprecedented public health crisis, economic turmoil, and social disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduating law students could help fill this growing need, but it is unclear whether we will be given the chance.

The Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners, which serves as the gatekeeper to the practice of law in our state, is currently considering alternatives to the July 2020 bar exam. As of this writing, over 300 graduating law students, law professors, and practitioners have signed a letter requesting that the Board of Law Examiners adopt a policy of emergency diploma privileges in order to ensure that graduating law students have an equal opportunity to gain admission to the Pennsylvania Bar. This policy would grant students automatic admission upon graduation from an accredited law school, provided that they satisfy other minimum standards, such as character and fitness requirements.

Even more importantly, emergency diploma privileges would ensure that Pennsylvanians do not lose access to essential legal services in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis that has collapsed the economy and disrupted our daily lives. Some states, like California, are currently considering if they should grant emergency diploma privileges, which would allow recent law graduates to gain full admission to the state bar if they meet certain ethical standards. Utah has proposed a modified policy of emergency diploma privileges.

We are asking that the Board avoid the messy alternative chosen by states, such as New Jersey, who have postponed the July Bar exam and will grant temporary licensure to graduates. Under this approach, commonly referred to as “temporary licensure,” recent graduates would be required to take the bar exam at a later date, and any graduate who fails to pass the exam within the designated period of time would lose their temporary license to practice law. Temporary licensure may seem appealing as it moves the problem to some unspecified point in the future, but it is not a solution. It would demand an uncertain future administration of the bar exam, inevitably disrupt the careers of an entire class of new lawyers, and limit the capacity of legal organizations through supervision requirements in the meantime.

The COVID-19 Task Force of the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) has recognized that a policy of temporary licensure proposal would reduce the public’s access to essential legal services and delay recent graduates’ full admission to the bar based on conditions beyond our control. It would also make it impossible for many graduates to gain full admission to the bar until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and no one knows when that will be. Many recent graduates would have to study for the bar exam while struggling to earn an income. But as most lawyers know, studying for the bar exam is itself a full-time job, and statistics have shown that the bar exam is more difficult for students who study for the exam while attempting to earn a living.

To ensure that the public does not lose access to essential legal services and to minimize the unforeseen burdens that recent law graduates now must bear, the PBA’s COVID-19 Task Force specifically recommended that:

students who graduate in May 2020 be issued a provisional license with specific additional requirements…and that, if those graduates complete additional requirements established by the Board of Law Examiners, they be issued a full license without the need to take the bar examination.

To be sure, this solution is far more equitable and sensible than postponing the bar exam or requiring that applicants take the exam online, which would raise a host of logistical issues that are unlikely to be resolved in time for the July 2020 exam.

Nevertheless, the deans of all nine Pennsylvania law schools have requested that the Board of Law Examiners adopt a policy of temporary licensure, despite student recommendations and advocacy for emergency diploma privilege. Although there has been a robust organizing effort from law students across the state, the deans did not give us a meaningful opportunity to voice our concerns before they made their request to the Board.

Leading members of the Pennsylvania legal community, including the leadership of the Philadelphia Bar Association, have expressed that the bar exam is necessary in order to protect the integrity of the legal profession and to ensure that Pennsylvanians receive the quality of legal services that they are entitled to. In other words, the bar exam is necessary to ensure that every member of the Pennsylvania Bar is competent to practice law.

Many lawyers, however, have questioned whether the bar exam actually tests applicants on the skills they need to practice law competently. In fact, the PBA’s COVID-19 Task Force’s recommendation suggests that the Board can ensure that recent law graduates are competent to practice law without requiring them to take the bar exam at a later date. But we are not faced with the question of whether the bar exam effectively measures an applicant’s competence. Rather, the most pressing question is how to ensure that the Pennsylvanians who need our help receive the legal services they need.

The most equitable and sensible response to the COVID-19 crisis is a policy of emergency diploma privileges because Pennsylvanians, especially members of our most vulnerable communities, need us now more than ever. Any delay in the admission of May 2020 graduates to the Pennsylvania Bar would widen existing disparities in the access to legal services. Our request that the Board grant emergency diploma privileges upon satisfaction of the character and fitness requirements would ensure that the public has access to the legal services to which they are entitled; otherwise, many Pennsylvanians may not receive them at all.


Ryan Aloysius Smith is a third-year law student at Temple University, Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a lead organizer of Law Students for Equitable Responses to COVID-19.


Suggested citation: Ryan Aloysius Smith, Diploma Privilege or Bust: Delayed Bar Exam Would Harm Graduating Law Students and Vulnerable Pennsylvanians in Light of COVID-19, JURIST – Student Commentary, April 15, 2020,

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