What is the emergency diploma privilege?

What is the emergency diploma privilege?

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeps the nation, states are adopting the emergency diploma privilege to accommodate canceled bar exams. However, law students and graduates may be unaware of what the emergency diploma privilege entails.

In short, the emergency diploma privilege allows law school students/graduates to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney. This extends until passing the bar exam.

Here, we dive deeper into what the emergency diploma privilege is and what it means for law students going forward.

UPDATE 4/14/20: The NCBE announced it does not support the emergency diploma privilege. Utah has proposed the emergency diploma privilege. 

What is the emergency diploma privilege?

A ban on in-person activities in most states has led to some July 2020 bar exams being canceled and postponed until the fall. In the interim, states have adopted the emergency diploma privilege to allow graduates to practice law while awaiting the bar exam.

Definition of the diploma privilege

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, the “Diploma Privilege allows our graduates to secure a license to practice law in Wisconsin without taking a bar exam. This invaluable opportunity is available to students who complete our required Diploma Privilege courses and obtain a ‘C’ or better average.”

At this time, Wisconsin is the only state that offers the diploma privilege. This means that Wisconsin law students do not take a bar exam. They are licensed if they graduate from an approved law school.

Definition of the emergency diploma privilege

The emergency diploma privilege is similar but not the same. And, it is coming up in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The emergency diploma privilege also allows law graduates to practice law without passing the bar exam. However, states and the American Bar Association (ABA) made it clear that passing the bar is required for licensure.

Please keep in mind that the ABA recommendations are just that—recommendations. States are free to license applications as they wish. However, it provides a good overview and expectation of how states might approach the emergency diploma privilege going forward. 

According to the ABA recommendations, this should apply to “(1) 2019 and 2020 law graduates, and (2) graduates of prior years who have been since graduation serving as judicial law clerks, who have not yet taken a bar examination, and who apply for admission to the bar, to engage in the limited practice of law, if the July 2020 bar examination in their jurisdiction is canceled or postponed due to public health and safety concerns arising from the coronavirus pandemic.”

The ABA recommendations also state that the applicant has to take the bar exam by the end of 2021. And, the ABA states applicants must graduate from an accredited law school and be eligible for the July 2020 bar. Plus, failing the bar exam will cease the use of the emergency diploma privilege, according to the ABA. 

What is the reasoning behind this?

As the ABA points out, and as many law students are aware, canceling or delaying the bar exam has a ripple effect on law students. Examinees have to change around their schedules/work, they are not making money (usually), they cannot be billed at an attorney rate, and they are facing law school debts.

Thus, the emergency diploma privilege is meant to mitigate some of these hardships. It allows law graduates to practice as an attorney while awaiting the next bar exam. The hope is that graduates can make more money and be able to get a head start on their careers.

When does this mean for law graduates?

First, you do not escape the bar exam if the emergency diploma privilege is adopted. Law graduates will need to take the bar exam the next time it is offered. All of the states that have adopted this emergency privilege so far — Arizona, Tennessee, and New Jersey, have stated that applicants must take the next available bar exam. Graduates hoping that the emergency diploma privilege does away with the bar exam will be very disappointed.

Under the emergency diploma privilege, each state has its own rules as to limitations, who is eligible, etc. In general, law graduates will be able to do all or most of the same work as a licensed attorney. For example, in New Jersey, the order states that “2020 graduates may then enter appearances, draft legal documents and pleadings, provide legal services to clients, engage in negotiations and settlement discussions, and provide other counsel consistent with the practice of law in New Jersey.”

Overall, this should be great news for prospective attorneys! The emergency diploma privilege allows law graduates to practice law and make money, despite the bar exam postponement.

More information

If you are still in law school, here are some extra tips on how to pay attention in law school online classes and tips for law students attending online classes! For a mini mental break, complete our law school word search!

If you are studying for the bar exam, JD Advising has created a study schedule for you that is free! If you are looking for a bar exam course on your OWN time, check out or on demand course! We have a preview of the course here, so check it out to see if it is right for you!

We know this is a very difficult time for law students. For those that are graduating, check out how the coronavirus might impact law school graduation and how to prep for the bar during the coronavirus outbreak. Our early bar prep series is a great tool to get a head start on bar prep! And, if you have a summer associate or clerkship position lined up, read this post!

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