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In the United States, the diploma privilege is a method for lawyers to be admitted to the bar without taking a bar examination. Once used by as many as 32 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, Wisconsin is currently the only state that offers a broad diploma privilege for admission to its state bar. New Hampshire has offered diploma privilege to a limited number of students in a special practice-based program at the state's only law school since 2008. Originally used as a method to foster the growth of formal legal education, the privilege started to fall into disuse early in the 20th century, in common with the tightening of requirements in other learned professions. The privilege was abolished in California in 1917. Most recently, West Virginia did away with the privilege in 1988, preceded by Montana and South Dakota in 1983 and Mississippi in 1981.
In 25 states, attorneys who were initially admitted to practice by another state's diploma privilege are eligible for admission to the state bar on motion of the admission committee.
Diploma privilege in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin, graduates of the two American Bar Association-accredited law schools in the state (Marquette University Law School and the University of Wisconsin Law School) may seek admission to the State Bar of Wisconsin without having to sit for a bar examination.
The diploma privilege in Wisconsin dates to 1870, when it was passed as part of the same legislation that established the University of Wisconsin Law School. At that time a law department was established in the State University and a course of study under able instructors was prescribed for students in the law department. The 1870 law provided that graduates of this department should be entitled to admission to the bar upon their certificate of graduation—that is, their law degree. It was offered to encourage future lawyers to get a formal legal education instead of simply "reading law," which was the typical legal training of the time. This has ever since been known as "diploma privilege."
Graduates of out-of-state law schools, even if they are Wisconsin residents, must still take the Wisconsin bar exam to be admitted in Wisconsin. Likewise, graduates of Wisconsin law schools must take the bar exam in many other states in which they are going to practice. A number of U.S. states do not grant reciprocal admission for attorneys who obtained their bar admission through the diploma privilege, requiring those attorneys to take that state's bar exam, regardless of the length of that attorney's practice.
In Wiesmueller v. Kosubucki, a class action lawsuit certified in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in June 2008, the petitioners assert that the Wisconsin diploma privilege discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause because it affords a diploma privilege in lieu of a bar examination only to lawyers graduating from Wisconsin's law schools. The suit sought injunctive relief to expand the privilege to all applicants to the Wisconsin Bar who obtain a law degree from any school accredited by the American Bar Association. The district court subsequently dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action.
On July 9, 2009, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal of the case, saying "we find ourselves in an evidentiary vacuum created by the early termination of the case," and remanded the case to the district court.
- Letter from Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson to the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility
- Some opinions about the diploma privilege from the Wisconsin Lawyer magazine…[dead link]
- ...and some more.
- The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law (formerly Franklin Pierce Law Center), whose graduates receive diploma privilege in New Hampshire
- The program began in 2005, but its first class of students did not graduate until 2008.
- "Reciprocity, Comity, and Attorneys Exams" (chart), Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2008, National Conference of Bar Examiners and American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, 2008, p. 28.
- Steven Levine, "End Separate-But-Equal Bar Admission", Wisconsin Lawyer, Vol. 75, No. 12, December 2002.
- 2008 WL 2415459 (W.D. Wis., 2008).
- The Seventh Circuit opinion.
- Moran, Beverly. The Wisconsin Diploma Privilege: Try It, You’ll Like It, 2000 Wis. L. Rev. 645 (2000).
- Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules, Chapter 40, relating to bar admission
- Reed, Alfred Zantzinger. Training for the Public Profession of the Law (Foundation 1921) pp. 266 (noting the abolition of the diploma privilege in California).
- In re Yanni, 2005 SD 59, ¶ 13, 697 N.W.2d 394, 399 (describing the privilege's abolition in S.D.)
- Essays on Other Lawyers Licensing Processes and Alternatives to the Bar Examination, National Conference of Bar Examiners (2005)