As every law school graduate from UW-Madison or Marquette knows, Wisconsin is the last state in the nation to still extend a diploma privilege. Simply put, if students at these schools take certain courses and attain a particular minimum grade in those courses, they can be admitted to practice law in Wisconsin without taking a bar exam.
The Associated Press is reporting that a federal judge in the Western District of Wisconsin has certified a class action challenging the diploma privilege. Anyone who applies to the Wisconsin bar within 30 days of graduating from law school can join the suit, which alleges that the diploma privilege is unconstitutional because it discriminates against out-of-state graduates.
I haven’t thought much about the constitutionality of the diploma privilege, but I have pondered the wisdom of Wisconsin’s policy. As a Madison grad, the issue for me has always been whether it is too easy to gain automatic admission; in other words, should the required minimum grades be higher than they are? I perceive bar exams as performing an important, albeit imperfect (and perhaps too lenient), screening function. Put succinctly, if a graduate can’t pass the bar in the maximum number of times that they are allowed to take it, the public would be better served by having that graduate in a different profession. But I don’t have any empirical data about whether the Wisconsin diploma privilege provides the same sort of screening as a bar exam. (For example, how many graduates in other jurisdictions never pass that jurisdiction’s exam? How many graduates of Madison and Marquette do not qualify for automatic admission?) I do, however, think that a student’s performance in a semester-long class is a more accurate measure of whether she is qualified to be a lawyer, provided that Wisconsin’s bar is set high enough. (Bad pun absolutely intended.)
I’d be interested in relevant data, if anyone knows it. And I’m sure those who are currently sitting in a bar review course have their own opinions about Wisconsin’s system.