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By Samson Habte
The Tennessee Supreme Court Aug. 4 ruled in favor of a foreign lawyer who was denied the opportunity to sit for the state’s bar exam even though he spent a decade as a practicing attorney in Argentina before graduating from Vanderbilt Law School’s LL.M. program with a 3.9 grade point average ( Gluzman v. Tenn. Bd. of Law Exam’rs, Tenn., No. M2016-02462-SC-BAR-BLE, 8/4/17).
The decision resolved a case that shone a light on the arcane rules that govern the admission of foreign-educated bar applicants.
Those rules vary from state to state, and Tennessee has established some of the most onerous requirements for applicants who were educated outside of the United States.
That might change as a result of this case, which overruled a Tennessee Board of Law Examiners (BLE) decision that denied Maximiliano Gabriel Gluzman’s petition to sit for the bar exam.
Gluzman—with amicus support from two Tennessee law schools and an array of libertarian advocacy groups—challenged that decision as illegal, arbitrary, and inequitable.
Gluzman received a bachelor’s degree and a J.D. from a university in Argentina, where he practiced law for more than a decade. He then enrolled in the LL.M. program at Vanderbilt, where he graduated with a 3.92 grade point average, according to court records.
One professor described Gluzman as “one of the very best students that I have ever had the privilege of teaching,” and a member of the BLE acknowledged that he was “obviously a very, very qualified person.”
But the BLE nevertheless argued that Gluzman’s “impressive background” and “stellar” academic performance offered “no assurance that his basic legal education is substantially equivalent to that represented by a J.D. degree from an ABA-accredited law school,” as required by Tennessee’s rule governing the admission of foreign-educated applicants.
The high court ruled for Gluzman—but it offered little explanation for that decision. Rather, the justices merely stated that they were exercising their discretion as the “ultimate authority” on the interpretation of the rules governing lawyer licensing.
Daniel A. Horwitz, a Nashville civil rights lawyer who represented Gluzman, told Bloomberg BNA that he and his client were “obviously thrilled about the result.”
But Horwitz declined to speculate about why the court issued what appears to be an ad hoc decision excepting Gluzman from the requirements of the Tennessee admission rule.
Lucian T. Pera, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he also wasn’t sure why the court did that.
But Pera, a partner at Adams and Reese LLP in Memphis, suggested the court may have stayed its hand because Gluzman’s case prompted two Tennessee law schools to petition the high court for “a rule change that might well touch on this issue.”
Pera was referring to a joint petition that Vanderbilt Law School and the University of Tennessee College of Law filed in April.
In that petition, the law schools say Gluzman’s case “illustrates well the inadequacies of the current rule” in Tennessee, which “takes an unusual approach to the issue of foreign-educated lawyers.”
On May 31, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order seeking public comment on the UT/Vanderbilt petition. The deadline for comments is Aug. 29.
According to the Vanderbilt/UT petition, states “have taken a variety of approaches” in crafting rules for the admission of foreign-educated applicants.
Some states take a “practice-focused” approach. Those states, the petition says, “either require a minimum number of years of active practice or establish a pathway to admission based on practice experience and completion of an LL.M. degree.”
Other states, like Alabama, have “education-focused” rules. According to the petition, “the fact that a foreign-educated lawyer has obtained an LL.M. degree from an accredited U.S. law school is, by itself, sufficient to permit the lawyer to sit for a bar exam” in those states.
Still others, like Texas, take a “hybrid approach” that “establishes different paths for admission based upon the nature of the lawyer’s original legal education, practice experience, and completion of an LL.M. degree,” the petition says.
Tennessee, by contrast, is “one of the few states in the country to require that a foreign-educated applicant must attain both (1) a legal education that is ‘substantially equivalent’ to that of a U.S.-educated lawyer, and (2) an LL.M. degree from a U.S. law school,” the petition says. Pera told Bloomberg BNA that the Tennessee Bar Association has not yet weighed in. The Knoxville Bar Association did on Aug. 4, endorsing the “hybrid approach” described in the petition.
When the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to hear Gluzman’s appeal, Horwitz penned a blog post that applauded the justices for taking up “a laughably egregious case of economic protectionism.”
Horwitz wrote that the “extraordinary facts” of Gluzman’s case would make it difficult for the BLE to make a “straight-faced” argument that its decisions were “based on anything other than its interest in protecting Tennessee’s native-born attorneys from competition—a result that benefits lawyers but harms consumers by artificially raising prices.”
Those arguments resonated with a trio of libertarian advocacy groups that filed an amicus brief supporting Gluzman.
The amicus brief—a joint submission of the Cato Institute, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the Goldwater Institute—argued that the BLE’s application of the admissions rules contravened “Gluzman’s fundamental right to earn a living, a central liberty interest in Tennessee.”
The Tennessee Office of Attorney General represented the Board of Law Examiners.
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