Fabiani Duarte
Fabiani Duarte

A plan to restructure the American Bar Association Law Student Division — to address a $600,000 deficit — failed at the ABA Annual Meeting held in Chicago.

Any structural changes will now have to come from higher up the ABA chain, the division’s incoming president said.

But he also claimed two “huge wins” from the Saturday assembly meeting — a resolution supporting national adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam and a resolution to give law students free access to ABA-sponsored educational programs.

Though the restructuring plan was approved by a simple majority of the 186 law school delegates present Saturday, the proposal — which, according to meeting minutes, would have saved the body $157,000 — did not receive the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

“Why were reforms needed? Because we have a $600,000 deficit and a very small reserve,” said incoming Law Student Division chair Fabiani Duarte, a third-year student at Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in Macon, Ga.

The Daily Law Bulletin could not obtain details on the size of the budget, where the money comes from or a list of what the money is spent on.

The Law Student Division draws delegates from each of the 205 ABA-approved law schools. It is divided into 15 regional circuits, each with its own governor.

In addition to the regional governors, every law school has a connection to the division through an ABA representative, who is also a law student.

The restructuring plan would have eliminated the governor positions and localized ABA involvement, “allowing us to break away from a model that was broken,” Duarte said.

The vote, Duarte said, was 93-59 — nine votes shy of passage.

“There was lack of understanding from some,” he said. “Others understood it very well and said they were going to vote against it on principle. They went down with the ship.”

Among the contributing factors to the deficit, Duarte said, were the travel expenses for the governors along with circuit-wide events that had “big speakers and big budgets” but were attended by small numbers of students.

Members of the Law Student Division do not know when ABA leadership will consider the restructuring plan, and an ABA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Though disappointed with the result, Duarte added that the vote showed assembly members that “their voice mattered, and that’s a good thing.”

“A lot of (student bar association) presidents might feel removed and not invested in the ABA,” he said.

“Now they certainly know that’s not the case, because they do have a voice and can make a difference.”

The assembly — attended by delegates from 110 different schools — also voted to support a national adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam.

Currently adopted by 16 states, the UBE is a standardized bar exam that allows graduates to transfer test scores to other states that also use the test, provided they achieve a passing score that qualifies for their new state.

State officials can then write separate sections to test state law.

Until New York adopted the test in May, the largest state to use the UBE was Colorado, which administered 1,238 bar exams in 2014.

New York had the nation’s most test takers in 2014 with more than 15,200 — nearly 19 percent of all test takers nationwide.

When the Empire State officially announced it would use the UBE starting next July, debate heated up in other states, including in Illinois.

“Our generation, we move around a lot,” said Nicholas Ventola of The John Marshall Law School, a second-year student who is the governor of the circuit comprising Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin law schools.

“We think it’s going to make it easier if we move from state to state.”

Support for the UBE passed at the assembly with a 119-41 vote, meeting minutes show.

Two groups in Illinois — a committee from the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar and a task force from the Illinois State Bar Association — are studying the issue, with most Illinois law school deans in favor.

In the Law Student Division, the opposition came from delegates in Wisconsin and Georgia, Ventola said.

Wisconsin has “diploma privilege,” meaning any student who graduates from either of the state’s two ABA-approved law schools — Marquette University Law School and University of Wisconsin Law School — can practice law in the state without taking the bar.

Ventola said he heard concerns from Georgia-based delegates that the change would make it easier for students from outside the Peach State to compete for legal jobs on their turf.

Duarte called support of the UBE one of two victories that came out of the assembly, the other being the passing of a resolution that urges the ABA to give students free access to any Continuing Legal Education programs hosted by any ABA section, division or forum.

“One of the main goals of my administration and our team is to build bridges between law students and practitioners,” Duarte said.

“We are trying to eliminate some of the barriers for students to become involved with the SDFs.”

The assembly also discussed the ABA’s decision in April to waive the $25 ABA membership fee for students.

“By providing free membership, we are increasing our numbers,” Ventola said. “Hopefully those people will graduate into the actual ABA upon graduation.”