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California Law Deans Ask for State to Make Bar Exam ‘Open Book’

Sept. 14, 2020, 8:52 PM

California law deans Monday urged the California Supreme Court to drop remote proctoring for the fall bar exam and eliminate limits on materials students may consult during the two-day online test.

The letter is the latest salvo in the fight over what is considered one of the toughest bar exams in the country. Uncertainty around when and how the test will be administered comes as the state struggles with containing both the coronavirus pandemic and severe wildfires.

The California Supreme Court, which oversees licensing and discipline for the more than 250,000 lawyers in the state, in July pushed back the online version of the exam, previously scheduled for September and now scheduled Oct. 5-6. The court also permanently lowered the passing score from 1440 to 1390.

“There is great concern over whether and how the remote proctoring will work. Also, in order to administer a closed book exam, the California bar has developed detailed rules for students, such as not allowing food or books to be visible. This creates serious hardship for students who live in small apartments,” the deans said.

The law deans who signed the letter come from Stanford University; University of California Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Hastings; University of Southern California; University of San Francisco; University of San Diego; Santa Clara University; Chapman University; Pepperdine University; Western State College of Law; Loyola University; University of the Pacific; and California Western School of Law.

“The bar exam always is a source of stress for those taking it, but the situation this year is dramatically different,” the letter said. “We still are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected many of our graduates and their families. Many are dislocated by the fires and adversely affected by the smoke. We are in the midst of a national reckoning with racism and anti-Blackness. Administering the exam without remote proctoring and in an open book manner would decrease the stress for many taking the bar.”

They pointed out that Indiana and Nevada used open book exams and remote proctoring for their tests in July.

The law deans also noted there was a “non-trivial risk of significant technical issues or snafus in the planned administration that would be substantially alleviated by this alternative approach.”

The court has received and will consider the deans’ emailed letter, spokesman Cathal Conneeley said Monday.

The technological issues were raised by leaders of the group United for Diploma Privilege who Sept. 8 filed an emergency petition to the California Supreme Court urging justices to waive the state’s bar exam requirement and instead allow law school grads to become licensed without taking the test.

“We appreciate the letter the California ABA deans sent to the Court this morning and, while such an approach would not alleviate all considerations we have documented in our filing, it certainly would ease some burdens on bar applicants who have been displaced and are under enormous stress in light of COVID and wildfires,” said Pilar Escontrias and Donna Saadati-Soto, leaders of the national diploma privilege group and recent law school grads who plan to practice in California. “We hope the Court seriously considers the Deans’ letter, in addition to the numerous letters sent to the Court by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other stakeholders.”

Several states in recent months have adopted forms of emergency diploma privilege, including Utah, Washington State, and Louisiana.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com
To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com