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Diploma Privilege and a Lament for the Lawyers
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Diploma Privilege and a Lament for the Lawyers

Where are the law and the lawyer?

Where is this profession going?

I’m a rising 3L. I have one more year left of law school. And yet I am witnessing something that is both completely unexpected and a story that has been told over and over for ages. And I find myself completely conflicted about my chosen profession.

Here’s why.

My 2L year started off like any other 2L year, but that all changed in March 2020 when COVID-19 took our country by storm. A disease unlike anything seen in over 100 years brought our most inflexible profession to its knees. But here’s the thing. The institutions on which our profession is built fought that every step of the way. I have already written about the early stages of this previously, so let’s catch up with where we are today.

Amidst a time of chaos and uncertainty, I saw a group of law school graduates, both recent and otherwise, come together to advocate for each other and the needs of their respective communities. These graduates and hopeful advocates formed United for Diploma Privilege and a number of state-specific advocacy movements across the country asking for one simple thing: “Give us a license so that we can get right to serving our communities.” They called for emergency diploma privilege because they realized that in this time of growing unemployment, mass disease and death, and continuously diminishing access to legal services, their communities would need them. They would need capable, competent, dedicated advocates to serve them as soon as possible.

This is what the profession should be. This is everything the profession should encourage.

And yet it didn’t. In fact, it has done everything in its power to stop them.

This profession has repeatedly chosen to put an arbitrary measure of “competency”, namely the infamous bar exam, over everything else. They have chosen to put the bar exam over public health. They have chosen to put the bar exam over applicants of color and applicants facing systemic socioeconomic and racial disparities. Instead, they tell applicants that advocacy is a “distraction” and “this is not the time for a policy debate.” They have threatened applicants with “character and fitness” issues for questioning the decisions of the entities deciding state bar admission. “Character and fitness” reviews have long been used to keep individuals out of the profession through some perceived but never executed ethical standard, but now they are being used to prevent any remote criticism of the profession from its newest members. They have forced some applicants into anonymity for fear of bar retribution or employer retribution. They know that there is a real public health risk, but some states are still holding in-person bar exams. They are requiring COVID waivers to be submitted, absolving them of all liability for the serious risk of disease and death that comes merely from sitting for an exam that is, in essence, “a superb hazing ritual.”

This profession is supposed to be about advocacy. This profession is supposed to be about using our training to provide the best advocacy we can under the circumstances we can. What message are we sending to the generation of grads trying to join the bar this year in pressuring them not to advocate? What message are we sending to the students still in law school in this pandemic when they watch their predecessors being attacked by the gatekeepers of the profession? The only logical conclusion I can draw from this is that we no longer want to train advocates. We have truly become a profession of petty, vindictive bureaucrats. This is the profession that built a criminal justice system based on police brutality, plea bargains, and military-grade “shoot first and ask questions later” tactics. This is the profession that is quickly killing the trial by a jury of our peers. This is the profession that builds commercial law on forced arbitration clauses where the parties, particularly in employer-employee relationships, have distinctly unequal bargaining power.

I’m a rising 3L and the Managing Editor of JURIST. I didn’t set out to write this. I didn’t envision my tenure to include covering a global pandemic, the largest racial justice activism since at least the 1992 Rodney King Riots if not the actual civil rights movement, or the dedicated activism of this year’s bar applicants. I would love for the world to be business as usual and to be able to report the news as I’m sure that my recently graduated comrades would love to be advocating for their clients right now instead of fighting against the systemic barriers erected by this profession. Barriers rooted in both racism and profit. But this is the world we live in now, and it calls for our greatest advocacy.

And perhaps I am being too cynical. Despite everything being against them, these applicants have some successes to show for their hard work. Washington State granted diploma privilege for 2020 grads of ABA-accredited law schools. Many states have canceled in-person bar exams. Many lawyers, law professors, legal professionals, and even state supreme court justices are standing up for the 2020 applicants. But it’s worth noting that advocacy doesn’t end with the cancellation of an exam or diploma privilege for some. This movement is about diploma privilege for all and diploma privilege for all is the only ethical solution.

I didn’t come by this profession the traditional way straight from an undergraduate degree. I haven’t taken the traditional career path that this institution so often demands in the form of On-Campus Interviews, Big Law, or judicial clerkships. I have approached my law school career by trying to contribute the most I can in the best ways I can. And yet here I see my friends and colleagues being threatened and bullied and silenced by the gatekeepers of the profession, and I’m honestly not sure that I want to join this profession. The only thing keeping me here is that I can’t help but be inspired by the advocacy I see in my peers. I sincerely desire to graduate and be licensed so I can call them colleagues and work with them to change the world. Because this movement has shown me that if anyone can change the world, they can.

 

Tim Zubizarreta is a rising 3L at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and JURIST’s Managing Editor. He is interested in labor and employment law, particularly in the technology and entertainment industries.

 

Suggested citation: Tim Zubizarreta, Diploma Privilege and a Lament for the Lawyers, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 15, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/tim-zubizarreta-diploma-privlege-lawyers/.


This article was prepared for publication by Gabrielle Wast. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.