- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Law students in Iowa should continue to take the bar exam before being allowed to practice law, the Iowa Supreme Court said Friday.

Chief Justice Mark Cady issued an order saying the court will take no further action on a recommendation from the Iowa State Bar Association in December, which suggested changes in admission procedures, including eliminating the bar exam requirement for graduates of the state’s two law schools who want to practice in Iowa.

The Uniform Bar Exam, a test accepted in 14 states, would have been available for those who wanted to take it.

But, otherwise, law students at the University of Iowa and Drake University would have been required to complete a specified number of credits from a list of courses the high court would have helped develop, as well as submit letters of good moral character and undergo character and fitness reviews.

Without detailing the reasons, Cady said the court concluded the diploma privilege should not be adopted but that the current process should be carefully studied for ways to achieve “greater efficiency, expedition, economy, and utility for the applicants for admission.” He asked the Iowa Board of Law Examiners to submit a report to the court by March 31, 2015.

Students complained that they must take the exam in July and wait until mid-September to get results, a lag time that delays by months their ability to get to work and begin paying of their law school debt.

Cady said he will issue a separate order calling for more public input on proposals to improve the course of study at Iowa’s law schools.

Guy Cook, a Des Moines attorney who was president of the ISBA last year, said the proposal was intended to strengthen the admission process.

“The current exam is imperfect because it doesn’t test on Iowa law and it doesn’t protect the public in that sense,” Cook said. “What this proposal was really designed to do was not make it easier to be an Iowa lawyer but make it more comprehensive in terms of the studies you had to complete satisfactorily. It was about enhancing the measure of competency not lessening it.”

Critics said it was a way for Iowa law schools to boost enrollment, which has been falling in recent years. Wisconsin is the only state that broadly offers a diploma privilege program that omits the bar exam.

Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge James Morrison told the court at a public hearing last week he’s never seen a difference between lawyers who pass the bar and those who get their license through diploma privilege.

“It is indistinguishable how someone got his or her ticket to practice law,” he said.

Cook and other supporters had an uphill battle to convince Iowa’s legal community to follow Wisconsin’s example. The Supreme Court received more than 150 written comments from lawyers, judges, law students, law professors and legal experts from Iowa and other states. A large majority supported keeping the bar exam.

Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins said in the hearing his primary concern was protecting the public by ensuring lawyers qualified to practice get a license.

“You’re asking us to do something which may have some great merit and maybe in a perfect world should be done but we still have a responsibility to the public and that bothers me a lot,” he said.

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