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Despite diploma privilege in WA, some firms want grads to take bar exam

Caroline Spiezio  

Caroline Spiezio  

(Reuters) - Washington state last week said it would allow law school graduates to become licensed without taking the bar exam because of the coronavirus pandemic. But some law firms want incoming associates to sit for the test anyway.

In a survey of 128 law school graduates conducted this week by Washington law school student body leaders, 6.3% of respondents said their employers told them that they would not recognize so-called diploma privilege, while another 11.7% said that as of Tuesday their employer hadn’t yet decided or told them when they would issue a decision. Just under 60% of respondents knew for sure that their employer would take diploma privilege.
 
Washington has scheduled tests in July and September, which it still plans to administer. The diploma privilege applies to graduates from American Bar Association accredited law schools who signed up to take the test on one of those dates.
 
Washington’s decision to grant diploma privilege came after many states, including New York and California, postponed their in-person July bar exams because of the coronavirus pandemic, saying it was a health risk to proctor the tests in large groups.
 
Efrain Hudnell, the former Student Bar Association president of Seattle University School of Law, said that most of the employers encouraging graduates to take the bar despite diploma privilege are law firms. Hudnell and Emina Dacic, the former president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Washington School of Law, conducted the survey of students on employers accepting diploma privilege.
 
Among 13 of the largest law firms in Seattle contacted for this story, just two, Perkins Coie and Foster Garvey, said that they’ve given associates approval to proceed with diploma privilege.
 
Stoel Rives still hasn’t decided whether it will let associates take diploma privilege, managing partner Melissa Jones said Thursday. Another large Seattle firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, declined to comment.
 
Representatives for other big law firms with Seattle offices did not respond to request for comment.
 
Robert Chang, the founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at the Seattle University School of Law, said that law graduates may feel pressured to take the July test “unless they hear clear messaging from their employers that they’re really good with people taking diploma privilege, saying that they will suffer no negative consequences.”
 
Some firms want their hires to take the state’s bar exam, which includes the Uniform Bar Exam, because it provides a portable score that can enable them to work in jurisdictions outside of Washington, Hudnell said. He and Chang declined to comment on which firms had told graduates they needed to take the bar.
 
Foster Garvey co-chair Stephen DiJulio said the firm has warned associates that “future reciprocal admissions in other states may be impacted” if they skip the bar.
 
In a Washington State Supreme Court order on Friday, Chief Justice Debra Stephens said that because of “the extraordinary barriers facing applicants currently registered to take the bar examination” in July or September, candidates who graduated from an American Bar Association accredited law school would get diploma privilege but that the state would still offer in-person tests.
 
Candidates were asked to decide by Wednesday whether they’ll take diploma privilege instead of the UBE, although they’re allowed to change their plans to take the bar for automatic diploma privilege up until their test date.

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