Bar Exam

What alternatives to the July bar exam are being considered in light of COVID-19?

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Given that COVID-19 restrictions prohibit large gatherings for the foreseeable future, administration of the July 2020 bar exam seems unlikely, according to a working paper released Sunday by a group of legal academics. It calls for states to consider diploma privilege for 2020 law school graduates, as well as supervised practice.

Diploma privilege, which has long been used by Wisconsin, licenses most graduates of the state’s law schools without requiring them to take a bar exam. Supervised practice, which already exists in many states, allows advanced law students to practice under the close supervision of an attorney. The working paper suggests that states with such rules to extend the licenses to Nov. 15, 2020, for people who graduated in 2020 or December 2019.

“In addition to protecting the public health, we need to preserve the mental health of the candidates hoping to join our profession this year. Those candidates are already suffering educational, family, and financial disruptions. Some have lost part-time jobs needed to support themselves and their families. Others are struggling to care for children or older relatives. All are panicked about whether they will be able to take the bar exam this summer and, if not, how they will cope,” the paper states.

The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action” was written by 11 academics. Authors include Claudia Angelos, a clinical law professor at New York University School of Law, Marsha Griggs, an associate law professor at Washburn University who directs its academic support and bar passage program, and Mary Lu Bilek, dean of CUNY School of Law. Bilek also serves on the council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Besides the issue for 2020 law school graduates, people need legal services now more than ever before, according to the working paper.

“Each year, more than 24,000 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools begin jobs that require bar admission. The legal system depends on this yearly influx to maintain client service. The COVID-19 crisis, moreover, will dramatically increase the need for legal services, especially among those who can least afford those services. We cannot reduce entry to the profession at a time when client demand will be at an all-time high,” the paper states.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops and produces the attorney licensing tests used by most U.S. jurisdictions, is working closely with state bar admission offices, to find a flexible plan that will protect candidates safety, and ensure the competency of people admitted to practice law, the NCBE said in a statement.

Bar exams are administered by individual jurisdictions, not by NCBE.

“It is not clear that it is imperative to quickly adopt alternative methods of licensure, as proposed in the white paper, particularly at a time when courts and bar admission offices are working overtime (and remotely) to respond to this crisis,” NCBE President Judith Gundersen wrote in the statement.

She added that extending or expanding student practice rules could help provide essential legal services on a temporary basis, but a period of supervised practice should not “necessarily” qualify someone for licensure.

Nearly all jurisdictions have a student practice rule, and that might be the best way to provide some employment opportunities for spring 2020 graduates, as well as legal services for people in need, according to Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education for the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Accreditation decisions are made by the section’s council.

He also noted that passing a bar examination is an important requirement for becoming a fully licensed lawyer.

“The council’s position is that bar admission should require both an ABA-approved law school J.D. degree and the passage of a bar exam. Any changes in or accommodations to the bar admissions process, even in the context of an emergency or a disaster, therefore, should be made thoughtfully and with consideration of both long-term and immediate concerns.

Besides diploma privilege and supervised practice, the working paper mentioned bar exam ideas its authors thought would not work well. That included postponing the July 2020 bar exam, giving it online or administering the bar exam to small groups. Besides harming 2020 law school graduates as well as access to justice supports, those ideas would be very costly for states, the authors wrote. They plan to expand and refine the working paper in the future.

“We have focused in this paper on the needs of clients and the legal system, because that is the first concern of professionals. As a profession, however, we also have a duty to the students completing their legal studies this spring. As stewards of the legal profession, we need to provide humane options for these new graduates, at the same time that we guarantee a supply of new lawyers to serve pressing client needs,” the paper states.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the New York State Bar Association task force is meeting to consider if it will be possible to administer its July bar exam. The state uses the Uniform Bar Exam.

“COVID-19 has profoundly impacted all aspects of the practice of law. Depending on the duration of the crisis, it may not be possible to hold the bar exam this July,” Henry M. Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, said in a news release. “That judgment needs to be made soon, as graduating law school students are understandably anxious to take their place in this profession and need to know when and how best to prepare for the bar exam. So, we look to the task force to expeditiously give us its best thinking and judgment on this important issue.”

Updated March 24 at 8:18 a.m. to add comments from Barry Currier.

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