Guest Opinion | The state of Iowa must implement diploma privilege for graduate law students

For the safety of our students, Iowa must not hold the bar exam in-person and assist graduate students.


Alyson Kuennen

The Boyd Law Building is seen on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Formerly located at the Old Capitol, the University of Iowa was the first to have a law school west of the Mississippi River. (Alyson Kuennen/The Daily Iowan)

How would you feel if someone told you that in less than two weeks you had to go sit in a room with two hundred other people? Not two hundred people from your town; two hundred people from all over the state and other states, too. You’d be in the room for approximately eight hours. Two days in a row.

The room is in the Airport Holiday Inn in Des Moines, located in Polk County. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, Polk County has the greatest number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases and the greatest number of deaths.

If you believe what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health tell us about COVID-19, you would not go sit in that room. Yet, that’s what the state and the Iowa Judicial Branch are asking of our former students, recent law school graduates preparing to sit the bar exam.

The state knows it’s less than ideal to hold the exam in person: Those administering the bar exam won’t accept your application or materials in person. The portions of the application and supporting materials that must be notarized will be notarized remotely. The exam orientation, conducted the day before the exam, will be online. And should you pass the exam and be approved for admission to the bar, they likely won’t swear you in, in person. Too dangerous.

While Iowa forges ahead with an in-person exam, other states have conceded that gathering hundreds of people in person, indoors, for hours on end, in the middle of a pandemic poses an unacceptable risk: Illinois, Georgia, Ohio, New Mexico, Texas, and Pennsylvania, and thirteen other states have delayed their exam to the fall and/or moved to an online exam. These thirteen states represent nearly 70 percent of exam takers.

Other states have gone further, recognizing not only the danger of an in-person exam, but the cruelty of leaving recent graduates in limbo. Oregon, Washington, and Utah have implemented the diploma privilege, allowing graduates of accredited law schools who otherwise meet the character and fitness requirements to be admitted to the bar without taking a standardized test.

What does that limbo look like? Our former students paid for law school with loans that are about to come due. They are expected – and need — to study full-time for the bar exam. Graduates are living on credit, bar loans, or the generosity of family and friends until they get their first paycheck in three years.

But those who have a job may not be able to start working or may have to take a lower salary if they aren’t admitted to a bar. Some graduates will lose their jobs because they aren’t yet licensed. Graduates still looking for jobs — often those who go into the public sector — are at a tremendous disadvantage in the job hunt without a bar license. Many of our former students have already signed leases on apartments in the cities and towns where they had planned to practice law, but they may have no income to pay their rent. In the best case scenario, they have a job and can meet their financial obligations, but they have no time to study for a later bar exam.

The State of Iowa has put graduates in this untenable position, which jeopardizes their physical health, their emotional well-being, their financial security, and their ability to practice law now or in the future. And Iowa can relieve the Class of 2020 of these burdens by implementing a limited diploma privilege for graduates of University of Iowa College of Law and Drake University Law.

These are extraordinary and unprecedented times: A limited diploma privilege would greatly decrease the number of individuals who would sit the bar exam on July 28-29, making it safer for everyone involved, and would allow graduates of in-state schools to begin practicing right away. In a state with a shortage of attorneys, and a pandemic that will lead to increased demand for attorneys – due to unemployment, bankruptcy, health insurance disputes, increased domestic violence and divorce, among others – why wouldn’t we do everything we can to get them into practice now?

For those who are concerned about the fact that these lawyers will not be required to take the bar exam, don’t be. No study has shown that passing a bar exam is a prerequisite to being a good or ethical lawyer. Yet, for those who still harbor fears, we can say as clinical professors—professors who have spent hundreds of hours working with many of these young lawyers as they practice under our bar licenses—they take their obligations seriously. With mentorship and supervision they will be as successful as any lawyer who has sat for the exam in the past. But, more importantly, they will be healthy and alive.

John Allen, Clinical Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Bram Elias, Clinical Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Daria Fisher Page, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Alison Guernsey, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Leonard Sandler, Clinical Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law