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States Consider Delays to July Bar Exam in Response to Virus

March 25, 2020, 7:35 PM

Several of the largest U.S. states could delay their summer bar exams because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

Bar examination authorities from New York to California to Florida confirm their tests, currently scheduled for July 28 and 29, may be delayed because of the health risks associated with the virus.

The tests are administered on uniform dates—and typically in large, in-person groups—primarily in order to promote exam security. That’s why it’s possible bars are also considering different types of fixes, including enacting “emergency diploma privileges,” a solution suggested in a March 22 paper authored by 11 law school professors and legal education policy experts.

Changes to exams would have widespread effects. More than 46,000 people sat for bar exams across the country last July, according to Judy Gundersen, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

Of the half-dozen jurisdictions contacted by Bloomberg Law, even the states that have signaled they may go on as planned are keeping their options open, given the unique nature of the national crisis.

“As of this writing, the July 2020 exam is scheduled to be administered as usual in Illinois,” said Nancy Vincent, director of administration for the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, in a statement. “Illinois notes this is a fluid and evolving situation, and we are evaluating a variety of factors.”

Meanwhile, Texas officials also are preparing to administer the examination as planned, “until it is apparent that we cannot do so with reasonable safety and reliability,” said Susan Henricks, executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners, in a separate statement.

Emergency Privileges

The New York State Bar Association announced on Monday that it has convened its Task Force on the New York State Bar Examination on an emergency basis, to consider whether it’s possible to administer the exam as originally planned in July.

The coronavirus has hit New York hard, particularly in New York City where one of the primary bar test sites, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, is in the process of being converted into a makeshift hospital.

The state task force is considering a wide array of possible fixes, NYSBA President Henry “Hank” Greenberg told Bloomberg Law, including moving the exam date and capping the number of exam-takers in any given location.It’s also considering emergency diploma privileges, which would allow graduates the ability to practice without taking a bar exam. The task force is chaired by Alan Scheinkman, the presiding justice of New York State’s Appellate Division, Second Department.

The key, Greenberg said, is to move quickly, for the sake of third-year law students “laser-focused” on the exam. Students already are facing what can be “extraordinarily stressful times” over job searches in a tough legal market and amid student loan debt. They are also entering the workforce as the nation begins to face the long-term economic fallout of COVID-19.

Shrinking or capping the number of bar test-takers at any one time in individual locations may be key, officials from several states said. This would conform to the directives from a growing number of governors and national leaders to avoid congregating indoors in large groups, to try to minimize virus spread.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners recently noted that each jurisdiction makes its own decisions regarding bar exam administration. But the group also suggested that a coordinated response to the outbreak, “to the extent that’s possible,” could minimize misinformation and confusion among candidates.

Several suggestions the national group may be looking at were put forth in the March 22 paper entitled “The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action.”

They included postponing the bar exam, administering the bar exam online, and giving the exam to groups of 10 or fewer people at a time. Yet each of those presents significant logistical issues, the authors concluded.

Feasibility of an online test would rest on the ability of the National Conference of Bar Examiners to move the Uniform Bar Exam, which most states use, and each of its components, to the right digital format. Yet while perhaps possible, the paper’s authors suggested several questions would remain about test security and abiding health precautions.

Instead, they preferred the possibility of states allowing emergency diploma privileges to 2020 graduates of American Bar Association-accredited law schools.

The authors note that eligibility for privileges could be tightened by mandating that graduates complete online courses or exams that supplement the Uniform Bar Exam, or by successfully finishing a clinic or externship.

According to Gundersen of the NCBE, this solution would be up to each state’s admission board and highest court. Such a privilege comes with a significant administrative burden that would be borne by admissions staff, she said, “and it’s not clear that it’s necessary at this point to start waiving licensure requirements that are in place for the protection of the public.”

The NCBE is working to develop an approach that gives graduates the ability to take the bar exam “without compromising safety or the integrity of the licensure process,” said Gundersen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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