Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 18, 2023

An attorney’s fight for right to practice

State cites lack of education despite law degrees, test scores

Violaine Panasci says she believed she’d done everything she could possibly do to qualify to practice law in Tennessee.

She’d earned a Juris Doctor, for starters, and then a Master of Laws. While living in New York, she passed the Uniform Bar Exam, scoring in the 90th percentile among more than 4,300 candidates.

Panasci also had co-run a pro bono food and beverage clinic that targeted food insecurity in rural areas and funded Black farmers. Passionate about food law and how it impacts the health of people in underserved communities, Panasci not only had a head for the law but also a heart.

When Panasci moved to Tennessee, she was confident she was a shoo-in for a law license, as her UBE score was 309, which well exceeded the state’s requirement of 270. So, she submitted her application to the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners in March 2021 and began to work, pending her admission, at Rockridge, an IP and patents firm with an office in Chattanooga’s James Building.

Then came the day eight months later when Panasci received the board’s response. Believing she was at the end of a mere formality, she opened the letter and began to read.

The words on the page jolted Panasci like a thunderclap. By the time she’d finished reading them, a single, incomprehensible word had enveloped her like a dark fog: denied.

“I freaked out,” Panasci recalls as she tells the story.

Panasci, 26, is seated at a table for two in a Nashville coffee shop, giving a cup of steaming brew time to cool. Unlike the vapor rising from her beverage, her memory of that moment, as well as the nearly yearlong ordeal that followed, appears to be unmercifully sharp.

As Panasci dissects the letter in her mind’s eye, she once again sees the board’s reason for rejecting her application. When she says it out loud, it sounds like she’s joking.

“The board said I didn’t have the necessary education,” Panasci says. Gaps in her story instantly appear, like sinkholes.

Panasci fills in one of the biggest openings. She’s not an American, she explains, but Canadian. Born and reared in Montreal, she hails from province of Quebec and learned to speak French before English. Much of her speech is softly laced with the accent of her native tongue, though identifying it can take time.

This alone should not have motivated the Board of Law Examiners to reject Panasci’s application, as American law firms in recent years have not only welcomed but also recruited a growing tide of Canadian associates – 31 in 2021, to be precise, notes an article in Canadian Lawyer magazine that complains American firms are “poaching” some of the nation’s brightest stars.

Rather, the fly in the ointment was Panasci’s lack of an undergraduate degree.

“Quebec has a different school system than the rest of Canada and the U.S.,” Panasci explains. “After high school, we do two years of general and professional teaching college, which no one else in the world does. From there, I was able to go straight to law school.”

The years of general and professional teaching college are called CÉGEP, an acronym from the French term, “collège d’enseignement general et professionnel.” Panasci says she realized during this stage of her education that she could apply the law to her passions for food and community health and took every relevant class she could squeeze into her schedule.

From there, Panasci spent four years studying the law at the University of Ottawa, where she earned both an LL.L (Licentiate of Law) and a Juris Doctor.

Those degrees, along with the Master of Laws she earned in New York, were more than acceptable to that state’s bar, Panasci says, which readily welcomed her after her stellar performance on the UBE. However, after she arrived in Tennessee, her lack of a bachelor’s degree was unacceptable to the state’s Board of Law Examiners.

“I did two years of CÉGEP, which doesn’t fit into any mold in the U.S.,” Panasci clarifies. “So, the board said my undergraduate experience was inadequate and it couldn’t recognize the transfer of my UBE score.”

The denial stung and a startling notion bore into Panasci’s thoughts like a voracious beetle: Was she facing a future in which she’d be unable to practice law? Returning to New York wasn’t an option, as she moved to Tennessee to be with her boyfriend as he completed an oral surgery residency at Vanderbilt. So what, then?

Practicing without a license was out of the question, Panasci says. “A lot of our work is federal in nature, but you need a license to practice legally in the state, and I didn’t want to get hit with an unlawful practice of law complaint. That would’ve been career-ending.”

Panasci considered working in-house, or for a nonprofit or legal clinic. People with good intentions suggested she become a paralegal. However, none of these options sat well with her because she’d worked hard to become a lawyer.

“We don’t earn a J.D. for fun,” she laughs.

Panasci says one of the benefits of being part of the legal profession is having a community of advocates close at hand. With this in mind, she reached out to one of the big legal guns in not just Chattanooga but across Tennessee: Bill Killian, a former Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

“Bill is friendly to foreigners, a great litigator and he knows a lot of people, so I figured his support would be good for me,” Panasci says. “I wanted his signature on my briefs.”

Killian, who’s currently of counsel at Cavett, Abbott & Weiss, agreed to help and met with Panasci at Peet’s Coffee the next day, when he told her he was certain the denial was an administrative mistake.

After a member of the Board of Law Examiners assured Killian the denial was not an error, Killian and Panasci devised a simple plan for overturning the ruling: showing the board its decision was, frankly, “dumb,” given her stack of diplomas from venerated law schools and her UBE score, Panasci says.

The outcome of an earlier case gave Panasci hope that this approach would work. In a 2017 matter, Tennessee’s Board of Law Examiners attempted to prevent an Argentinian named Maximiliano Gluzman, who had graduated Vanderbilt Law School’s LL.M program with a 3.9 GPA, from taking the state’s bar exam because he’d earned his first law degree in his native country.

Gluzman prevailed and is now an immigration attorney and a teacher at Belmont University. Following his victory, the Tennessee Supreme Court reformed Rule 7 § 7.01, which governs the admission requirements for attorneys educated in foreign jurisdictions, to provide a better-defined path for international lawyers to obtain licensure in Tennessee.

Previously, a January 2018 article on the Supreme Court’s website explains, lawyers “from the vast majority of countries around the world were forever prohibited from taking the Tennessee bar exam regardless of their ability or qualifications because only a handful of jurisdictions follow the American model of separate undergraduate and legal degrees.”

The court’s amendments allowed foreign attorneys to take the Tennessee bar “if an approved credential evaluation service determines that their foreign education was ‘substantially equivalent’ to an American legal education.”

Before taking that step, Panasci and Killian filed an administrative appeal, which the board roundly rejected. The pair followed that with a second appeal that included a report from the International Academic Credential Evaluators – an approved credential evaluation service – indicating that Panasci had earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. No matter, the board effectively said as it rubber-stamped another denial.

At this point, Panasci believed the board’s denial had potentially become unconstitutional.

“We believed the board was discriminating against me because of my national origin. Any applicant who went to school in another state or province in North America would meet their undergraduate and graduate requirements except for a Quebec applicant who participated in the French-Canadian school system.”

If the Board of Law Examiners disagreed with Panasci’s assessment of its actions, it’s not saying, as it doesn’t publicly discuss the details of individual cases, says a member who practices in Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, Panasci was using both of her hands to count the number of nights since she’d slept well. Waiting for each appeal to wind its way through the unhurried channels of bureaucracy was harrowing, she says without sounding like she’s exaggerating for the sake of drama.

“It harms your well-being,” she adds.

Having exhausted their options with the law examiners, Panasci and Killian appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. They filed their brief in May, more than a year after Panasci delivered her initial application to the Board of Law Examiners.

As their plea reached its destination, a chorus of additional voices rose in support of Panasci. Among these was the Goldwater Institute, a liberty organization founded in 1988 with the blessing of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the group’s website states.

In an article headlined, “Tennessee stopped her from earning a living, so we’re defending her rights in court,” attorney Adam Shelton announced that the institute had filed a brief in the state’s Supreme Court in support of Panasci’s constitutional right to earn a living.

“Government bureaucrats have no business stopping qualified professionals from doing their jobs. But that’s exactly what the Tennessee state government’s Board of Law Examiners did to Violaine Panasci,” Shelton fumed. “But Violaine has both a constitutional and a statutory right to earn a living. And the government can only interfere with that right if it’s necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people.”

The institute’s brief urged the Tennessee Supreme Court to overturn the board’s decision and recognize that the state’s Right to Earn a Living Act provides a framework to ensure licensing bodies do not “arbitrarily infringe on the constitutional right to earn a living.”

Although the extra backing bolstered Panasci’s hopes, anxiety was still her constant companion as fall approached and her 26th birthday arrived. As she celebrated Sept. 15, her friends encouraged her to make a wish and then blow out the candles on her cake. She said, “I don’t want to worry anymore; I want to be licensed,” and then extinguished the tiny flames with a tired breath.

Panasci learned the following Monday that the Tennessee Supreme Court had unanimously granted her wish the day before her birthday.

“The Supreme Court declared my education was ‘substantially equivalent,’” Panasci says. Specifically, the ruling says, “Based on Ms. Panasci’s legal education and UBE score, the requirements of section 7.01(a) should not preclude her admission to practice law in Tennessee by transferred UBE score.”

In a moment that must have felt like closing the back cover of a novel on a happy ending, Killian accompanied Panasci to Nashville in November and introduced her to the court before she was sworn in. The former U.S. attorney had met with Panasci for countless coffees and spent untold hours consulting with her on her case – all free of charge – so it was fitting that he was the one who ushered her into the profession he’d elevated through his distinguished service.

“I felt like Violaine was being done an injustice,” Killian said, “and have always believed pro bono services are part of the deal.”

“I had the right people behind me to make this happen,” Panasci smiles.

Panasci says she hopes her case will help to smooth the path for future foreign educated attorneys who want to practice in Tennessee. In a positive development, the Board of Law Examiners has petitioned the Supreme Court to allow it to approach the justices if it’s presented with a similar case. Panasci says this is a small win.

“Ideally, someone with an education similar to mine would be able to move through this process without the court’s involvement, but this option would take some of the stress and costs out of the hands of an applicant. Changing the law would be better, but something needs to be done, because this looks bad on Tennessee. It looks like discrimination.”

Having secured a license to practice law in Tennessee, Panasci is focusing her work at Rockridge on social enterprise matters and working with companies that abide by the “people, planet and profits” model of doing business.

She’s also serving on the board of the Nashville Social Enterprise Alliance, a nonprofit that serves social enterprises, and is a board adviser for Everoot, a social enterprise consultancy that specializes in B Corp certification.

Clearly, Panasci’s head and heart for the law are both undiminished in the wake of her ordeal.

Free of the stress that held her in a suffocating clasp for nearly a year, Panasci is also enjoying her personal pursuits to the fullest, she says. Among these is her quest to become a sommelier, or wine expert. She’s just reached the first of four levels.

“I’m not an expert yet, but who knows? I might open a vineyard and wine shop in Chattanooga someday,” she says.

Panasci has also become reflective about her journey to join the Tennessee bar. While she often felt like she was standing in an enclosure of cinderblock walls, she says, she believes that experience will serve a purpose.

“People from across the country who are going through the same thing often ask me for advice, and I tell them what I did. I hope it helps because I did it for them. I knew someone else was going to go through this, so I decided to be the Guinea pig.”