Protecting the Guild or Protecting the Public? Bar Exams and the Diploma Privilege
The bar examination has long loomed over legal education. Although many states formerly admitted law school graduates into legal practice via the diploma privilege, Wisconsin is the only state that recognizes the privilege today. The bar exam is so central to the attorney admissions process that all but a handful of jurisdictions required it amidst a pandemic that turned bar exam administration into a life-or-death matter.
In this Article, I analyze the diploma privilege from a historical and empirical perspective. Whereas courts and regulators maintain that bar exams screen out incompetent practitioners, the legal profession formerly placed little emphasis on bar exams and viewed them as superfluous for graduates of accredited law schools. The organized bar turned against the diploma privilege as the legal profession began to diversify, and some states abolished the diploma privilege specifically to block Black law students from the profession. The notion that bar exams ensure a base level of competence is a relatively recent construct.
A few studies have suggested that attorneys who struggle on the bar exam are more likely to commit misconduct. However, drawing on cross-state attorney complaint and charge data as well as Wisconsin attorney disciplinary cases, I demonstrate that the bar exam requirement has no effect on attorney misconduct. The complaint rate against Wisconsin attorneys is similar to that of other jurisdictions, and Wisconsin attorneys are charged with misconduct less often than attorneys in most other states. Moreover, the rate of public discipline against Wisconsin attorneys who were admitted via the diploma privilege is the same as that of Wisconsin attorneys admitted via bar exams.
Bar exams as currently constituted do little to advance public protection. A carefully drafted and enacted diploma privilege would comply with the Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause and would incentivize law schools to better prepare students for practice. States also have more direct means to address attorney misconduct than relying on ex ante measures such as bar exams.Subscribe to GJLE