Wisconsin Diploma Privilege Ruling Comments–Wiesmueller v. Kosobucki

Today, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in Wiesmueller v. Kosobucki, written by Judge Posner. This lawsuit is a class-action challenge to Wisconsin’s diploma privilege, which allows graduates of UW Madison and Marquette to become lawyers in Wisconsin without taking a bar exam. Licensed lawyers in some other jurisdictions who have sufficient practice experience can also obtain a Wisconsin law license without taking a Wisconsin bar exam, but everyone else has to take the bar exam to get a Wisconsin license. For example, California does not have reciprocity with Wisconsin, so when I moved to Wisconsin, I would have had to take the Wisconsin bar exam to obtain a Wisconsin license despite my California license and eight years of practice experience.

Many states used to have a diploma privilege, but over the years all of the other states have adopted a bar exam requirement, leaving Wisconsin as the only state still with a diploma privilege.

As I have written before, I am not a fan of the diploma privilege. Its effect was to encourage/pressure Marquette students to stay in Wisconsin rather than exploring other labor markets which required a bar exam that required months of painful and joyless studying without a salary to prepare for. This distortion in out-migration meant that Marquette’s reputation was heavily regional because the geographic footprint of its alumni was comparatively limited.

As a professor, the diploma privilege was stressful. Posner writes that Marquette and UW Madison might have “less incentive to spend time drilling them on Wisconsin law than the faculty of most law schools in other states would have” because there is no pressure to prepare students for the bar exam. In fact, the opposite was true. My Marquette colleagues and I were acutely aware of our responsibilities to Wisconsin citizens. We knew that our students could hit the streets the day after graduation and set up a shingle without any bar exam “filter” or even the doctrinal review that most students get from their bar exam preparation course. Knowing that I was the “last stop” in evaluating my students’ mastery of legal doctrines, I felt significant pressure to ensure my students had really mastered the law—perhaps more pressure than I feel today knowing that my current students will have to survive one more major examination of their doctrinal knowledge before they get unleashed onto the public.

In this ruling, the Seventh Circuit revives the legal challenge to the Wisconsin diploma privilege and remanded the case to the district court for more fact-finding. Much of the opinion implicitly espouses a skepticism that UW Madison and Marquette do anything special to teach students Wisconsin law.

I understand this skepticism, but I think it’s unwarranted. From my perspective, Marquette emphasized Wisconsin law plenty. To reinforce this message, Dean Kearney’s ridiculously oppressive Faculty Activity Report form always asked us to identify how we incorporated Wisconsin law into our courses. Given that this report was tied to our compensation, I certainly got the message. I included Wisconsin-specific legal doctrines in all of my courses—even my Cyberlaw course, which is not so easy given the borderless nature of the subject material!

To be clear, I didn’t emphasize Wisconsin law to the exclusion of national legal principles. After all, some of my students were leaving Wisconsin, and I needed to prepare those students as well. As a result, it’s not clear to me if Marquette emphasizes Wisconsin law more than other schools emphasize their local state’s laws. My guess is Marquette’s balance between state and national law is fairly similar to many other schools’ balance. But we definitely taught Wisconsin law!

Others have already provided some analysis of the opinion. Some worth checking out include:

* Dean Kearney. Among other things, Joe says “I expect that on remand (and any subsequent appeal) the diploma privilege will pass constitutional muster.”

* my former colleague Christine Hurt

* State Bar of Wisconsin report

Today’s opinion was exciting for another (and wholly unexpected) reason. The opinion provides a lengthy shout-out to a 2006 post from this blog about the Wisconsin diploma privilege. It is always satisfying to be cited by a judge, and it does not happen every day for me. My works have been cited in less than a half-dozen judicial opinions, and I believe this is the first time I’ve been cited in a federal appellate opinion. And being cited by Judge Posner, one of the most esteemed jurists of our time, is especially gratifying.

Ironically, the blog post in question is hardly one of my most brilliant contributions to the dialogue. It’s a simple 3 paragraph post (partially recapping and responding to a video from a local Wisconsin station) that probably took me less than 30 minutes to research and write, compared to some of my thoroughly researched multi-thousand word entries that take over a dozen hours to write. I’ve experienced this before in the sense that my most heavily trafficked blog post of all time (and thus, one of my most widely read works ever) was a single paragraph blog post I pounded out in less than 60 minutes making a snarky point about a New York state law banning domain name sales to terrorists. It’s a fine post for what it is, but I never expected that it would get the attention it got.

These are vivid reminders that we as bloggers need to stand behind every post we make. We never know who is going to read a post (however lightweight it is) and cite it in a federal appellate opinion.