As my colleague Tim Lynch, product of Marquette Law School, can attest, graduates of Wisconsin law schools become members of that state’s bar without having to take an exam. Understandably, out-of-staters (or even Wisconsonians who go elsewhere for law school and then want to return home) might be jealous. Now a federal judge has granted class status to a group of law school graduates who have earned law degrees outside Wisconsin and want the same right as in-state grads to practice in the state without passing a bar exam. (The judge also dismissed the suit as moot because the plaintiff had since passed the bar exam, but apparently this plaintiff has since added his wife and another recent law grad and hopes to take another bite at that apple.)
Wisconsin’s policy is obviously little more than a bit of protectionism meant to give its two law schools (Marquette and UW) a competitive advantage over regional rivals (or to retain, at the margins, Wisconsonians who might be tempted to go to other schools which they perceive as better or which offer them scholarships). But it may not be unconstitutional, at least not on the grounds the suit alleges – as a violation of Congress’s exclusive power to regulate inter-state commerce (state-specific bar rules are unlike the state-specific railroad gauges – which the Supreme Court has ruled to be unconstitutional on Commerce Clause grounds – because each state has its own substantive and procedural laws). Indeed, it is easy for Wisconsin to argue that its schools are the only ones that specifically teach its laws. Similarly, though many states allow experienced (typically five years) lawyers to waive into their bar, others (including – surprise, surprise – all major retirement destinations: HI, CA, AZ, TX, FL) require exams of all comers, even, say, a former Supreme Court justice.
A better argument to counteract all this nonsense can probably be made on equal protection grounds – on which the Supreme Court struck down citizenship requirements in 1973 – but even those formulations have failed in the context of, e.g., state bars that exclude non-permanent resident aliens (there goes my dream of practicing in New Orleans). In any event, I suspect that, at least in the Wisconsin case, a court would apply “rational basis” review and, for the reasons stated above, find for the state.
A free market solution would, of course, eliminate all the bar membership requirements for legal practice, giving clients the option to hire moderately trained non-lawyers – at cheaper rates! – for relatively simple matters such as simple wills, small claims litigation, uncontested divorces, etc. Much as lawyers can now advertise which law school they graduated from, the “real” lawyers would be able to say that they’d passed the bar, had their “character and fitness” reviewed by a committee, tried x number of cases, and other indicia that would distinguish them from hucksters selling the legal equivalent of snake oil.