Amid Bar Exam glitches, Florida Supreme Court says no to letting young lawyers practice on the strength of their law degrees

Florida Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court has rejected a petition to let law school graduates enter practice based on their educational credentials alone in light of the continuing postponement of sittings for the Florida Bar Exam because of COVID-19 and glitchy online examination software.

“This court has determined and still believes that law school graduation alone does not sufficiently demonstrate the knowledge, ability, and preparedness necessary to admit a law graduate to the practice of law in Florida,” the court said in an opinion issued Thursday.

“Therefore, it has long been the court’s policy to require Bar applicants to demonstrate that they meet these essential requirements by taking and obtaining a passing score on the Florida Bar Examination before admitting them to The Florida Bar,” the justices said.

The unsigned opinion was unanimous, although Justice Jorge Labarga recused himself from the matter without explanation.

The next online examination has been set for Oct. 13 and 14.

Matthew Dietz, a Miami lawyer representing more than 50 lawyers already licensed by the Bar who took up for the recent law school grads, said the applicants urgently need admission to the practice.

They must find law jobs to support themselves and repay law school loans, but that’s hard to do while prepping for the Bar, he said, which generally is considered a full-time occupation in its own right.

“They have over $100,000 in debt. They need jobs. They need health insurance coverage. This is the finish line that they all wanted to cross,” Dietz said. “It’s not fair to them.”

Comments filed in the matter by the National Hispanic Bar Association highlight the disparate impact for minority attorneys. They cite American Bar Association research noting proportional lack of access to wifi and computers for students of color relative to whites.

“The same survey noted that the majority of bar examinees ‘do not have access to a quiet space to take a remote bar examination, with white applicants again being substantially more likely to have access to a quiet place than an applicant of color,’” the organization said.

“People of color and non-traditional students, who have already faced and conquered institutional challenges to complete their legal education, will face additional barriers in the event of additional delays,” it added.

Justice Alan Lawson wrote separately to address these hardships.

“I sincerely wish that our well-intentioned actions in attempting to provide an admission opportunity as early as possible would have succeeded as planned,” he wrote.

“In hindsight, one could speculate that simply postponing testing until October or February might have been better for everyone. That is the nature of hindsight.”

The exam has now been rescheduled four times since May. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners cancelled the August examination sitting just days before it was scheduled to happen, citing technical difficulties.

Meanwhile, some test takers who downloaded the software required to support the exam complained it contained malware that damaged their computers and files, according to published reports.

The examiners, supervised by the Supreme Court, have since signed with a new software provider and Chief Justice Charles Canady has issued a public apology (available here).

“We acknowledge and accept the criticism that has been directed at the court and the Board of Bar Examiners,” he said on Aug. 19. “Our inability to offer the bar examination in August was a failure. We apologize for that failure.”

The court has approved a “Temporary Supervised Practice Program” which allows law grads to practice under supervision of a licensed attorney but they’ll still have to pass the Bar Exam to practice in their own right.

What the petitioners sought was a “diploma privilege” that would credential applicants based on their degrees as long as they meet other qualifications to practice, including that they prove their “good moral character.” They’d have to work under supervision of a licensed attorney for six months.

In saying no to that, the court emphasized the need to protect the public from practitioners lacking “knowledge of the fundamental principles of law and their application,” an “ability to reason logically,” and the preparedness to “accurately analyze legal problems.”

It concluded:

“Unfortunately, this court regularly sees the extreme harm done to individual members of the public by lawyers who, in practice, fall short of these ‘essential’ requirements. That harm, when it occurs, undermines confidence in our entire system of justice and, consequently, undermines the foundation for our system of justice itself.”

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.