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The debate over whether graduates of distance-learning law schools should be allowed to take the Texas bar exam has resurfaced at the state Capitol. State Rep. Robert Talton, a Pasadena Republican and an attorney, is sponsoring H.B. 826, which would require the Texas Supreme Court to adopt rules that would allow attorneys whose law degrees are based on study by correspondence to take the Texas exam, if they’ve passed another state’s bar exam and are licensed to practice law in another state. Under Talton’s bill, the distance-learning law school graduates would be admitted to practice law in Texas if they pass this state’s bar exam. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick referred Talton’s bill to the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee on Feb. 10. The bill is a retread of legislation that Talton, a solo practitioner, sponsored two years ago to allow Sugarland Republican Rep. Charlie Howard’s daughter, Julie Drenner, and other graduates of the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, a distance-learning law school based in Fresno, Calif., to take the bar exam in Texas. In 2003, the House added Talton’s bill as an amendment to the State Bar of Texas sunset legislation. But state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, a partner in Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, killed the amendment during a debate on the Senate floor. Howard says he didn’t ask Talton to carry the bill this year. Talton says he filed the bill again, because he doesn’t think it’s right to keep attorneys licensed to practice in another state from taking the Texas bar exam. “If they’ve got a license from another state — regardless of what law school they went to — they ought to be able to take the bar exam [in Texas],” Talton says. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, says he will file similar legislation in the Texas Senate. Wentworth, of counsel at Loeffler Tuggey Pauerstein Rosenthal, says the distance-learning law school graduates who would be affected by the bill have passed a bar exam in another state and currently can practice law in the federal courts of Texas. “Obviously, their competence is acceptable to some state’s standard,” Wentworth says. “Why not let them take the bar exam in this state?” Wentworth says the bill, if passed, would affect only “a handful of people” per year. Party politics could be a factor in the debate this year. The Republican Party of Texas included a plank in its 2004 platform that calls on the Legislature and the state Supreme Court to allow out-of-state attorneys with law degrees from distance-learning schools to take the bar exam in this state. But Duncan remains unconvinced that the legislation is needed. “I don’t think this makes any sense,” he says. “We’re spending lots of state dollars making sure we have [American Bar Association-] accredited law schools in Texas.” Allowing people to take the Texas bar exam without graduating from an accredited law school “doesn’t seem to be a move in the right direction,” Duncan says. Bill Piatt, dean of St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, also opposes the passage of legislation that requires the state Supreme Court to adopt a rule that would open the bar exam to attorneys who earned their law degrees chiefly through correspondence courses. “I see a real problem with the separation of powers,” Piatt says. “Traditionally, the Texas Supreme Court has had primary licensing responsibility.” Piatt says law schools do a lot to prepare students for the practice of law. An important aspect of students’ preparation, he says, is their interaction with law school professors. “I don’t believe they can get that by studying online,” Piatt says. Austin solo Bill Malone hopes to change the minds of those opposed to H.B. 826. Malone says he teaches trial advocacy in the Oak Brook program. As part of their study, the students must prepare and make opening and closing arguments that they video and send to him for critiquing, Malone says. Also, as part of the course, Malone says he meets with his students for training sessions that include conducting mock trials. Malone says the students play a variety of roles in the mock trials and critique one another while he’s critiquing them. Malone also hires Oak Brook students to work in his law office. Among them is Albert Ellison, an Oak Brook graduate, who is Malone’s office manager, legal assistant and an attorney for federal court matters. Ellison says he was educated at home from the time he was in the 10th grade until he entered Oak Brook in his early 20s. According to Oak Brook’s Web site, a student can be admitted to the law school with 60 hours of college credit or without any college credit if the student passed three College Level Examination Program tests. Ellison says he gained admittance through the testing. The Oak Brook law school program is set up on a four-year basis, rather the three years required in traditional law schools, Ellison says. Before students can begin their second year of law school, Ellison says, they must pass the California “baby bar” exam, which is a requirement for students in unaccredited law schools. Once students pass California’s bar exam and are licensed in California, they can take bar exams in about 20 other jurisdictions, he says. Ellison says the Texas rules governing who can take the bar exam are out of date in a world in which education systems are moving more toward distance-learning. Notes Ellison, “I think the rules should be given a second look.”

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