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In one of his first acts as leader of Wisconsin's lawyers, Steve Levine is setting the stage to abolish the bar exam or to extend it.
Levine, who became president of the State Bar of Wisconsin in July, has appointed a committee to study the standards to be admitted to practice law.
Alone among the states, Wisconsin lets lawyers practice without taking a bar exam, but only with a diploma from the Marquette University or University of Wisconsin law school.
Levine is a Green Bay native who attended Georgetown University Law School in Washington and therefore had to take the exam to practice in his home state. He is a lawyer for the Public Service Commission in Madison. He won election as Bar president as an insurgent, defeating two candidates who had been endorsed by the group's leadership.
Last month, Levine appointed the committee. Its report, due by the end of next year, could recommend ending the bar exam by extending the so-called "diploma privilege" to graduates of all accredited law schools; making all lawyers, including those trained in Wisconsin, take the exam; or no change.
Levine made his own views clear when he campaigned for the office: abolishing the exam. Short of that, he would extend it to all lawyers, even those from UW and Marquette. In either case, the standards would be the same for everyone, he said.
No matter what the committee recommends, it would be up to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin to change the rule.
There are differences of opinion within the Bar.
"The diploma privilege has been and is a wonderful opportunity for young lawyers who graduate from Wisconsin and Marquette law schools," said Richard Podell, a Milwaukee lawyer who has a diploma from UW and is not on Levine's committee. "There is no guarantee that taking the test makes a person a better lawyer."
As a Wisconsin delegate to the American Bar Association, Podell has spent considerable time and effort explaining the state's system to others. He does so to make sure state lawyers are not discriminated against because of it when they must appear elsewhere.
There might even be an advantage to Wisconsin in extending the diploma privilege to all accredited graduates, he said. Given the choice between a job in Chicago which required passing a bar exam, or in Milwaukee where no exam was needed, smart graduates from elsewhere might opt for Wisconsin, he said.
"The bar exam isn't that hard for anybody who was paying attention during law school," said Thomas L. Shriner Jr., a partner in the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner, who graduated from the Indiana University School of Law. His firm pays for a bar prep course and fees for associates who need to take the exam.
Shriner is chairman of a bar commission appointed before Levine took office charged with looking at the overall structure of the organization. Its report is scheduled to come out at the same time as that from the Levine committee.
"I clearly would vote for the diploma privilege," said Walter Dickey, a professor at the UW law school who was appointed to Levine's committee. "It means you don't have to teach for the exam."
However, he is not in favor of extending it beyond UW and Marquette. At both schools, graduates must pass special courses in Wisconsin law and legal procedures to qualify for the privilege.
While Levine could appoint a committee to look into diploma privilege, he has not been able to be so direct in implementing another of the issues on which he ran - making membership in the Bar voluntary. Now, to practice in Wisconsin courts, a lawyer must join the group.
There, too, the Supreme Court makes the rules, but Levine wants to hold a referendum on the question among the approximately 22,000 Bar members, about 6,900 of whom live out of state.
Holding such a referendum would require the approval of the Bar's Board of Governors. Its executive committee has asked for a report on the possible financial impact of a voluntary bar before considering the matter, Levine said.
Annual dues are $441, of which $224 goes directly to support the organization, with the rest put in special funds such as one to support legal services for the poor.
Shriner said his committee also will look at the question of mandatory membership.
"Having all the lawyers in the state as members of the Bar is a sound principle," Dickey said. "But I have no objection to having referendums," he added.
Levine's probable successor does.
"The referendum is pointless as far as I am concerned, because it is ultimately the Supreme Court that will decide the issue," said Thomas J. Basting Sr., a retired Madison lawyer who is president-elect of the Bar. He is scheduled to take over next July, before both Levine's committee and Shriner's commission are to report. Right now, any lawyer could petition the court to ask that bar membership be made voluntary, Basting points out.
He also opposes abolishing or extending the diploma privilege. "The current system has worked well for many, many years," said Basting, who holds a law degree from UW. "I have heard no compelling reasons why it should be changed."
Levine is not worried about such attitudes on the part of his successor.
"I am interested in the issues whether I am president or not," he said. "And when I leave, as past president I still get a vote" on the bar leadership.
"What he will accomplish is to raise these issues and get them before the Bar and get an airing of them, which it seems his initial objective is here," said J. David Rice, a lawyer in Sparta and member of Levine's committee.