Colorado law school grads can skip bar, start work as limited-capacity attorneys

Law school graduates who don’t want to take Colorado’s in-person bar exam this month over COVID-19 fears can switch to the February test and, in the meantime, begin work as lawyers in limited and supervised capacities, thanks to a rule change by the state Supreme Court.

Graduates of the University of Colorado and University of Denver law schools had petitioned state judicial leaders seeking alternatives to the July 28 and 29 exam, arguing it was too dangerous amid the coronavirus pandemic to bring potentially hundreds of people together in one place.

They’ve specifically requested that the Colorado Supreme Court invoke “diploma privilege,” as has been done in some other states, which would allow graduates who applied for the July exam and passed the bar’s character and fitness requirements to be licensed to fully practice law without having taken the test.

The state’s high court didn’t go that far, but, on Thursday, issued a rule change that allows graduates who don’t want to take the July bar exam to start working as lawyers in limited capacities and under the supervision of a qualifying attorney while they wait to take the February test.

Jessica Yates, attorney regulation counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, said in an email that the July bar exam will proceed as planned. She noted that the court worked with state and local public health officials to develop plans designed to minimize COVID-19 risks for test-takers.

“We are very sympathetic to the stresses being experienced by those studying for the bar exam, which are high even in an ordinary year, and of course this is no ordinary year,” she said. “We also are cognizant of our obligation to ensure that our licensed attorneys have basic competencies that would allow them to do the things we trust attorneys to do — such as defending an accused in a criminal case, helping someone with their child custody proceedings, or drafting a will.”

Under the Supreme Court’s guidelines, law graduates who choose to defer their bar exam and work as limited-capacity attorneys will be able to counsel and advise clients, negotiate settlements, prepare pleadings, and appear in court — so long as they are identified as a “certified limited practice graduate.” They can participate in criminal cases, though not involving felony charges, and civil cases, but not appeals.

Graduates who wish to transfer their July bar exam application to February must notify the state’s Office of Attorney Admissions by July 20. See the Colorado Supreme Court’s full rule change for more details about the process and conditions under which limited-practice graduate may work.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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