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Covid-19 Forces Bar Exam Prep Companies to Alter Courses

June 24, 2020, 8:50 AM

Bar exam preparation companies have been scrambling to set up new courses and adjust their delivery models due to the Covid-19 crisis and resulting changes in how the test is given.

Many states have delayed their in-person tests and made other adjustments to try to protect the health of proctors and test-takers. Other states are skipping traditional in-person exams for 2020, and are offering online tests for the first time. And at least two others have decided to implement an emergency diploma privilege, which allows certain law school grads to begin practicing without taking an exam at all.

These rapid changes—and the still-evolving, state-by-state landscape—have thrown prep course companies off of their standard, well-worn models by forcing them to provide services in new ways.

Mike Sims, president of BARBRI, a Dallas-based company with more than 200 employees, said its teams that handle IT, course content and teaching, and operations, each “moved heaven and earth to keep things going” over the last three months.

Moving Quickly

Since the pandemic took shape, state law examiner administrators have made several different types of changes in efforts to try to protect the health of test takers and proctors.

Officials also have been lobbied by law school students and recent grads anxious about growing uncertainty, and delays to the starts of their careers, especially as many are itching to repay large student loan debts.

Several states have delayed their in-person tests from July to September, and implemented other social distancing restrictions at test centers. Others, including Michigan, Indiana, Nevada, the District of Columbia—and most recently, Maryland—will offer online tests either next month or in October. Yet others, including California, still have yet to issue final plans.

This has compelled bar exam prep companies to add new courses and content, often on short notice.

The larger bar prep companies are being to forced to revise their study tracks, which are composed of recorded lectures, and practice essays and multiple-choice tests, to fit the new state-by-state exam schedule, said Alison Monahan, co-founder of Bar Exam Toolbox, a tutoring and advisory service. “That’s a ton of work,” she said.

BARBRI, which Sims said is the largest bar prep provider, used to offer a mix of remote and in-person courses. Now its classes are entirely virtual. At the same time it’s offering many more course dates and times to accommodate bar exam dates that have been postponed from July.

The different types of tests being offered also are causing bar prep companies to change how they coach test-takers to prepare for various new contingencies. One of the remotely proctored upcoming online exams, for example, will disallow test-takers from using pencil and scratch paper for the essay portion of the tests, Sims said. He said he was in the process of writing guidance explaining this, and offering the strategies for how and when to use electronic scratch paper.

At the same time, the company is trying to prepare students for new types of questions that some states, like Indiana, will be incorporating into their online tests, Sims explained. That state will for the first time offer a “short answer” component to its exam, which will require test-takers to devise roughly three-paragraph answers to complex legal issue hypothetical questions.

Safety First

Kaplan, another company that gives popular bar exam prep courses, also had to go fully digital.

“Since the pandemic-caused lockdown hit the United States in March, we quickly moved all of our in-person students into a live, online format,” Tammi Rice, vice president of bar prep programs for Kaplan, said in an email.

According to Rice, Kaplan is looking to resume its in-person courses in the coming months. But “the safety of our students and teachers remains paramount,” she said. “Safety will dictate when and what comes next.”

It’s possible that for many bar exam providers, online instruction will become a more permanent fixture, even if the Covid-19 threat fades over time.

The future of the bar exam has also proved dynamic in recent months.

Utah and Washington State have implemented different types of diploma privileges. These privileges allow certain sets of law school grads to begin practicing law in those jurisdictions without first taking and passing the bar. Wisconsin for years has had a similar system in place, but there are few other precedents in the U.S. for this arrangement.

Sims acknowledged that had enough large states implemented a privilege—including California or New York, both of which rejected the idea—it could have caused the company some significant hardships.

He said BARBRI considered lobbying state officials about keeping bar exams in place, but ultimately opted not to. “We chose to stay in the sidelines in that debate,” he said. “As we looked at it, we felt it was unlikely it was going to pass.”

Kaplan also held off on any formal or informal lobbying efforts, said Rice.

Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, Sims said he’s expecting 2020 company revenues to remain on par with those from 2019, though he declined to provide those figures. He credited BARBRI’s iLawVentures Distance Learning program, which creates online courses for law schools, with picking up the company’s revenue slack in what otherwise could have been a down year.

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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