Arizona bill would allow online law school grads to practice locally - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Arizona bill would allow online law school grads to practice locally

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Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2013 11:20 am | Updated: 10:53 am, Wed Jan 30, 2013.

A state legislator wants to allow more people to practice law.

The measure crafted by Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, would permit anyone who graduated from an online college of law to take the Bar examination. That is the test which becomes the gateway to the ability to hang out a shingle as an attorney.

HB 2120 essentially would override existing Supreme Court rules which require that individuals have graduated from a law school approved by the American Bar Association. That organization, however, does not accredit schools which provide all the coursework online.

But that assumes the Supreme Court, which has considered itself the sole arbiter of who gets to practice law, would not invalidate -- or ignore entirely -- the statute if it became law.

Allen said he's not trying to pick a fight with the high court. And he joshed that he's not arguing that Arizona needs more lawyers.

Instead, Allen said, he's simply recognizing the trends in education.

"We're moving into the information age where much more is available to people online than there used to be,'' he said.

Allen pointed out it already is possible to graduate from both high school and college "and never see a building.'' He said the next logical step is to address professional trades.

The big hurdle -- aside from getting the measure approved by his colleagues -- remains the Supreme Court itself.

Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the justices, said the Arizona Constitution gives the high court the sole power to make rules of procedure for all the courts in the state. More to the point, those rules spell out the process for admitting attorneys to the practice of law.

Allen is undeterred.

He noted that graduates of online law schools are allowed to take the Bar exam and practice law in California. All they have to show is 864 hours of preparation and study per year for four years.

"It works for them,'' Allen said. "I think it can work for us.''

But what allows these online graduates to become lawyers is not state legislation but rules approved by the California Supreme Court. So there really is no legal precedent for what Allen is trying to do.

Liewer said the Arizona justices believe it is "not appropriate'' for them to comment on pending legislation.

That could be prudent, as they will be the ones who have to rule on the constitutionality of Allen's proposal if it is adopted.

The one bit of legal precedent Allen may have dates back close to 30 years.

At one point the State Bar of Arizona was a state agency, created by and living with rules enacted by the Legislature. But a dust-up over whether the Bar had to surrender to a state audit led legislators to decide to "sunset'' the organization out of existence.

The Bar, however, did not go away. Instead the justices of the Arizona Supreme Court made it part of the judicial branch of government, which they constitutionally control, with a requirement that anyone practicing law in Arizona belong to the organization.

Still, Allen said, the fact that the Legislature had created the Bar in statute at one time means that it can do so again.

"Now the courts might disagree with me,'' he said.

"But I haven't heard from them yet,'' Allen continued. "And I'm looking forward to that discussion.''

Allen said this isn't an issue of personal concern: He said he's not the graduate of any online law school hoping to practice law in Arizona.

While Allen's legislation is aimed at the practice of law, he said he's not singling out that specialty for making entry into the profession easier. Allen said he'd eventually like to see if existing rules and laws can be altered to allow for graduates of other online programs to take the entry-level tests necessary for other professions.

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