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When the State Bar of Texas began the “sunset” process last year, its leaders anticipated a bill that would reauthorize the agency for the next 12 years and deal with its inner workings and the lawyer discipline system. On May 6 the Bar got that — and more. H.B. 599 emerged from the House of Representatives with an amendment meant to open the Texas bar exam to Julie Drenner, the daughter of Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, and others who earned a law degree from Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, a distance-learning law school based in Fresno, Calif. But the amendment might not accomplish that goal. Whether an Oak Brook graduate can take the test will depend on how the Texas Supreme Court interprets its rules governing admission to the State Bar, says Julia Vaughan, executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners (BLE). Vaughan says admission Rule XXIII allows an attorney who has actively practiced law in another state for three of the past five years to take the Texas bar exam if the attorney holds a J.D. from a non-American Bar Association-accredited law school, with the exception of correspondence schools. The amendment, which proposes allowing an attorney who passes a bar exam in another jurisdiction to take the Texas test — regardless of whether that attorney completed the undergraduate study requirements for admission to an ABA-accredited law school — doesn’t specifically address correspondence schools, Vaughan says. “I’m not trying to say there’s a gotcha in there,” Vaughan says. “I’m just saying that’s how I read it.” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips declines to comment on how the court might interpret the rule. “We don’t interpret rules as legislation is being written,” he says. ABA spokeswoman Nancy Slonim says graduation from an ABA-accredited law school satisfies the educational criteria to take the bar exam in any state. Slonim says ABA standards allow some credit for distance-learning. “Our standards do not recognize an entire curriculum done by distance-learning,” she says. Fort Worth solo Jack Strickland, the BLE’s vice chairman, says graduates of correspondence schools never have been allowed entry into the State Bar. “That’s outrageous,” Strickland says. “That’s not why we’re supposed to be sending legislators to Austin — to feather their own nests and take care of their family’s personal agenda.” Howard, an advocate for the home-school movement, says the amendment benefits home-school students because they are the ones who go to this law school. “In this particular instance, it does help my daughter,” he says. Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, an attorney, sponsored the amendment and declines to comment. But Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, says Drenner and another Oak Brook graduate approached him about carrying a bill. Chisum says he had legislation drafted for Drenner but declined to carry it because he is the sponsor of the Bar’s sunset bill. Drenner, a 27-year-old mother of three, says she attended Southern Methodist University, earned her law degree from Oak Brook in December 2000 and passed the California bar exam in 2001. At the time she began her legal education, she had a 1-year-old child and was unable to attend a traditional law school, Drenner says. Oak Brook provides students an opportunity to earn a law degree if they can’t, because of circumstances or finances, attend a traditional school, she adds. While Oak Brook is a distance-learning program, it requires a minimum of six weeks of in-class time, Drenner says. Before students begin their second year of law school, they also must pass California’s “baby bar” exam, she says. Oak Brook states on its Web site that a student can be admitted to the law school with 60 hours of college credits or without any college credits if the student has passed three College Level Examination Program tests. Oak Brook encourages, but doesn’t require, applicants to take the Law School Admission Test, according to its Web site. Peter Fear, Oak Brook’s director of administration, did not return a phone call seeking comment before presstime on May 8. Although Drenner can’t practice in state courts in Texas, she says that she can litigate cases — including state claims — in the federal courts here despite the fact that the State Bar has no disciplinary authority over her. If a client has a complaint about her, a grievance currently would have to be filed with the California Bar, Drenner says. The amendment to allow her to take the Texas bar exam would be a “win-win” situation because she could practice in Texas and the State Bar would have jurisdiction over her, she says. Drenner also downplays Howard’s involvement with the amendment. “Dad didn’t draft this amendment,” she says. Howard says he did lobby for the amendment. “I’ll lobby members on just about everything that comes up,” he says. Before approving H.B. 599, the House amended Talton’s amendment. The piggy-back amendment by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, a lawyer, allows an attorney licensed to practice law in another state to take the Texas bar exam and, on passing it, to practice here — provided that the state in which the attorney is licensed has reciprocal provisions for attorneys licensed in this state. Vaughan, the BLE’s executive director, says she doesn’t know what effect the Dutton amendment will have because there is no official definition of reciprocity in the rules governing admission. State Bar of Texas President Guy Harrison, a Longview solo, declines to comment on the amendments addressing eligibility to take the bar exam. That’s an issue for the Board of Law Examiners, he says. Harrison and Gib Walton, a Vinson & Elkins partner in Houston who chairs the Bar’s Sunset Committee, say they are pleased with the House-passed bill, which includes a provision to allow attorneys who have had a grievance filed against them to continue to take their cases to district courts. “We’re ecstatic,” Walton says. Retaining Texas attorneys’ right to go to court, where they can elect to have juries hear their cases, has been a top priority for Bar leaders, who still face a test in the senate. Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, the bill’s senate sponsor, says he would prefer to disallow the district court option for attorneys when clients have complaints about them. Whether that provision remains in the bill depends on whether he has the votes in the senate to take it out, he says. “The will of the denate will prevail on that,” Jackson says. H.B. 599 also includes a provision that requires the state supreme court to set a mandatory $65 annual fee for attorneys; the fee will help fund civil legal services for the poor. The new fee would generate about $4.5 million a year, according to a fiscal analysis by the Legislative Budget Board. Another provision in the bill repeals the 51 percent rule for Bar referendums and allows the votes to be cast electronically.

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