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Graduates from Wisconsin’s two law schools have a privilege that is unique in the nation: They don’t have to take the bar exam to become a lawyer. The “diploma privilege,” a 134-year-old policy, exempts most law school graduates from the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University from taking the bar exam. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s more than 21,000 licensed attorneys have never taken the state bar exam, including six of the seven state Supreme Court justices, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. Supporters of the policy say it forces law students to focus on all their course work, instead of only the parts likely to appear on the two-day test. “It’s a more efficient use of the applicants’ time and my time,” said Gene Rankin, director of the Board of Bar Examiners. “I think it’s a better guarantee of a broad range and ability.” Wisconsin’s practice has outlived similar rules in other states, mostly in the South. The last holdout, West Virginia, dropped the privilege in 1988. “We thought we were in the dark ages because we didn’t require people to pass the bar,” said West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Larry V. Starcher. The state Supreme Court monitors the quality of education at both law schools, which have extensive core-curriculum requirements that students must meet to qualify for the privilege. There is also a “character and fitness” requirement that excludes a few candidates each year. In a letter to the American Bar Association defending diploma privilege, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote that the program is rigorously managed and “succeeds in its goal of maintaining a qualified Bar.” University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Kenneth B. Davis Jr. said he supports the privilege after teaching in California. “The class had less patience with what I considered very fruitful and important discussions about legal policy and lawyer issues,” Davis said, “because they were so driven to focus on things that would be on the bar exam.” Marquette Law Dean Joseph D. Kearney said the policy gives state law schools a competitive advantage in recruiting in-state talent. But Wisconsin Public Service Commission attorney Steve Levine argues that the exemption should either apply to graduates of any accredited law school or be struck down. “I think there are a lot of inconsistencies that could be cleared up if Wisconsin went to one standard for everybody,” Levine said. He said the odds have been against a change because out-of-state graduates typically made up a small percentage of the Wisconsin bar. But about 13,000 of around 42,000 state bar members are now from out of state, making a change more likely. “It’s obviously something to protect University of Wisconsin and Marquette graduates,” Levine said. “Nothing could be more blatant.” Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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