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California Pushes Bar Exam to October, Offers Temporary Licenses

July 17, 2020, 1:27 AM

California’s highest court is delaying the state’s online bar exam until October and will allow some law school graduates to practice temporarily before passing the test, moves made in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The court said it would push back the online version of the exam, previously scheduled for September, in a Thursday letter to the State Bar of California. It also said it would permanently lower the passing score from 1440 to 1390 and ordered the bar to extend registration for the October exam through July 24.

“The court has sought the safest, most humane and practical options for licensing law graduates by encouraging and working with the State Bar to pursue the option of administering the California Bar Examination online as a remote test, to avoid the need for, and dangers posed by, mass in-person testing,” the court said.

California’s bar exam has become something of a flash point for those in favor of changes to the way the licensing test functions, with many urging that the requirement be at least partly waived since the coronavirus pandemic began. The decision comes as California’s confirmed Covid-19 cases increased to more than 356,000 and more than 7,300 deaths, the state Department of Public Health reported midday Thursday.

The New York Board of Law Examiners also announced Thursday that it was canceling the September exam.

The court directed the bar to establish a provisional licensing program for 2020 law school graduates who have yet to sit for the exam, which would allow them a limited right to practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

It’s also encouraging law schools to provide access to facilities and equipment for students who lack internet access at home or have home environments not amenable to two days of uninterrupted examination.

California officials have been struggling for several months to find the safest and smartest way to proceed. Though the court had asked the state bar to make “every effort” to administer the test online with remote or electronic proctoring, no final decision had been reached until late Thursday.

The state’s high court in late April ordered that the bar exam slated for July 28-29 be postponed to Sept. 9-10. The court in May, citing the “enormous challenges” the coronavirus health crisis placed on those seeking their law licenses, said it was moving the exam online.

Deans from 17 California law schools, including University of California Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Los Angeles, initially suggested issuing provisional licenses would allow new graduates to practice while overseen by a licensed attorney until they eventually take and pass the bar as long as they meet other bar admission requirements. The same group later changed its position in favor of a full “diploma privilege,” which would allow law school grads who meet certain conditions to practice without ever having to take the test.

Counting Costs

During a three-hour Zoom video meeting July 7, dozens of recent law school grads expressed strong feelings on the issue as they addressed the California Bar’s Board of Trustees. Several criticized what they considered to be an overly costly bar exam preparation process that discriminates against poorer students and, disproportionately, puts test takers of color at a disadvantage.

Some callers grew emotional as they talked about the stresses of having to pay for exam prep courses, while struggling to pay back law school loans, as they waited for careers delayed by the pandemic to begin.

At least six states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, and Nevada, as well as the District of Columbia, will offer online exams this year for the first time. Utah, Washington, and Oregon have agreed to grant emergency diploma privileges to certain law school graduates, an option now pushed by newly formed activist groups around the country.

California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D), chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the decision as “an appropriate and reasoned approach to addressing the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“However, I encourage the State Bar to take steps to address the inequities posed by an online exam and ensure all qualified applicants who wish to take the exam online have access to the resources they need to do so,” Jackson said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com; and Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com and Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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