August 19, 2020 

Media Contact

Sam Lew,, (415) 272-8022 
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area

Madison Jacobs, 
Public Rights Project 



126 public interest organizations sign onto letter supporting diploma privilege as a safe and equitable remedy to state bar examinations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Oakland, Calif. – Leading a coalition of more than 120 public interest organizations, Public Rights Project issued a powerful public letter to the National Board of Bar Examiners and 34 state boards overseeing their bar examinations in response to the ongoing problems and systematic unfairness resulting from efforts to administer the bar exam during a global pandemic. Due to the demonstrated inability of state bars to respond to this crisis effectively or equitably, the broad coalition representing civil rights, legal services, and national advocacy organizations called for these licensing bodies to provide diploma privilege to recent law school graduates in lieu of the exam.

Among those joining PRP on the letter are American Constitution Society, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Center for Reproductive Rights, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Earthjustice, Justice Catalyst, Latino Justice PRLDEF, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Lawyers Guild, National Women’s Law Center, People’s Parity Project, and several local affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Given current economic and political conditions, public interest attorneys are needed more than ever. As the letter explains, holding a bar examination under these conditions disrupts the flow of new lawyers into direct-service providers, government offices, and other public interest legal positions. This further undermines access to justice for underserved and under-resourced communities that already struggle to obtain legal assistance.

To date, several state bar examiners have proceeded with examinations in-person and using online formats. According to the letter, these have been plagued with several issues from examinees testing positive for COVID-19 to significant technical difficulties disrupting administration of the test. Continued in-person exams risk further transmission of the virus, which disproportionately affects people of color and those from lower-income households. Online exams particularly burden those with disabilities, given the ongoing failures to provide adequate accommodations, and those who do not have reliable internet connectivity or extended access to a suitable testing space.

“Our legal profession suffers from a shocking lack of diversity,” said LiJia Gong, Counsel at Public Rights Project. “Administering the bar exam during a pandemic only exaggerates inequities inherent in the system. Offering diploma privilege now is a small step toward ensuring that more lawyers admitted to the bar reflect the communities they will serve. Given the grave needs of many marginalized communities during this economic crisis, especially when it comes to legal services and access to justice, diploma privilege now is a fair and appropriate response to the moment.”

As the letter explains, efforts to administer the bar examination under these conditions exacerbates existing inequities. Sitting for the bar exam during a global pandemic is a substantial structural barrier for many recent graduates, particularly those of color, from lower-income households, and/or with health conditions that make them (or a family member) at-risk. Passing the bar requires sustained and focused study, which is made substantially more difficult for those who must also balance caring for family members, who live in crowded and noisy home environments and no longer have access to libraries or other quiet places of study, and who must manage chronic health conditions. The challenge of balancing all of these demands also has become more difficult since bar exams have been delayed more than two months in many states. For example, in Florida, the bar exam was cancelled just days before its scheduled date, causing more delays for thousands of applicants.

Given all of these and other concerns, the letter demands the state licensing bodies extend diploma privilege (licensing recent law graduates without requiring a bar examination) because it is the only fair, safe, and administrable option. Wisconsin licenses lawyers through this practice for in-state graduates on a permanent basis, while Louisiana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington have implemented some form of diploma privilege on a temporary basis in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The uncertainty and unpredictability of bar exam scheduling exacerbates the uncertainty we already face under a global pandemic,” said Vince Young, a recent law school graduate and Legal Fellow at Public Rights Project. “This means finding the time, budget, and space in a period of great precarity and upheaval to prepare for an exam which may not even happen. For graduates having to take in-person exams, this means risking their lives and the lives of those around them to enter the profession.”

The following public interest organizations also joined the diploma privilege letter:

A Better Balance
ACLU of Florida
ACLU of Georgia
ACLU of Kentucky
ACLU of New Jersey
ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties
ACLU of Southern California
ACLU of Texas
Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE)
Advocates for the Elderly and Disabled
Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE)
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
American Constitution Society
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Amistad Law Project
Appellate Advocates
ArchCity Defenders
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Bet Tzedek Legal Services
BPI (Business and Professional People in the Public Interest)
BU Law Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program
California Innocence Project
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Popular Democracy
Center for Public Interest Advocacy & Collaboration at Northeastern University School of Law
Center for Public Representation
Center for Reproductive Rights
Centro Legal de la Raza
ChangeLab Solutions
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School
Chicago Community Bond Fund
Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic
Columbia Legal Services
Committee of Public Counsel Services
Community Legal Services, Philadelphia
Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc.
Defender Impact Initiative
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
Dominican Bar Association
Education Law Center-PA
Election Protection Arizona
Equal Justice Center
Equal Justice Society
Equal Rights Advocates
Exoneration Project
Fair and Just Prosecution
Family and Children’s Law Center
First Shift Justice Project
Gideon’s Promise
GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders
Hawaii Innocence Project
Health Law Advocates
Hispanic National Bar Association
Immigrant Justice Corps
Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Innocence Project of Florida
Innocence Project of Minnesota
Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection
Just Futures Law
Justice Catalyst
Justice in Aging
Juvenile Law Center
Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center
Kentucky Innocence Project
Lambda Legal
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
Law School Transparency
Lawyers for Civil Rights (Boston)
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area
Legal Action Center
Legal Aid at Work
Legal Aid of Sonoma County
Legal Clinic for the Disabled
Legal Rights Center
Legal Services for Children
Massachusetts Advocates for Children
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
MetroWest Legal S ervices
Midwest Innocence Project
Mississippi Center for Justice
Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights
Mobilization For Justice, Inc.
Movement Law Lab
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National Center for Law and Economic Justice
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Disabled Law Students Association
National Employment Law Project
National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
National Lawyers Guild
National Organization for Women
National Women’s Law Center
Neighborhood Legal Services Association
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
Northern California Innocence Project
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Northwest Workers’ Justice Project
Oasis Legal Services
Office of the Appellate Defender
People’s Parity Project
Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts
Pride Law Fund
Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts
Protect Democracy
Public Justice
Public Justice Center
Public Law Center
Skadden Fellowship Program
Social Justice Collaborative
Southern Center for Human Rights
Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services
Texas Appleseed
The Bronx Defenders
The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
The Rhode Island Center for Justice
Towards Justice
Transformative Justice Coalition
Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund
Urban Justice Center
Women’s Law Project


About Public Rights

Public Rights Project is a national non-profit, based in Oakland, that builds state and local governments’ capacity to enforce their residents’ rights. Their mission is to close the gap between the promise of our laws and the lived reality of our most vulnerable communities. They work to achieve this mission by training attorney fellows to catalyze the proactive work of government law offices; providing strategic support in legal strategy, research, partnerships and data analytics to help offices develop high-impact legal cases; and designing and spreading community outreach and organizing approaches that empower community residents and advocates to be active partners in an enforcement agenda rooted in equity. Public Rights Project is a project of the Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit organization.