The California Supreme Court on Monday said the state’s bar exam will be delayed until the fall and likely administered online, capping weeks of debate over how best to proceed with licensing of new attorneys given what the court called “enormous challenges” posed by the coronavirus crisis.
California joins New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Alaska in postponing the July bar exam to Sept. 9-10 with the Covid-19 crisis canceling classes and disrupting students’ preparations for the test. The court’s decision follows separate pushes by law school students and deans to cancel the in-person exams.
“The court also has taken into account the health and safety issues presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the enormous challenges this public health crisis has placed before those who seek admission to the California bar, including the graduating law school class of 2020,” court Executive Officer and Clerk Jorge Navarrete said in a letter to bar Trustees Chairman Alan Steinbrecher.
Deans from 17 California law schools, including University of California Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Los Angeles, suggested issuing provisional licenses would allow new graduates to practice while overseen by a licensed attorney until they eventually take and pass the bar. The new graduates would also have to meet other bar admission requirements.
Another coalition of more than 1,400 students and recent graduates, professors, and practicing attorneys instead favored “emergency diploma privileges” to allow law students to practice without passing the bar.
The court instead went with a delay. It also said it will work with the bar examiners to facilitate online administration of the multiple-choice part of the test, the 2020 Multistate Bar Examination, or some variation of it, in September.
“These adjustments recognize and will advance the manifest public interest in maintaining access to justice through competent and qualified legal services,” Navarrete wrote.
Berkeley Dean Erwin Chemerinsky called it “inevitable and wise to postpone the July bar exam.”
“I hope that they succeed in developing an on-line bar exam. But the deans have been told by Judy Gunderson, Executive Director of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, that is unlikely to be ready so soon. I had hoped they would consider provisional licensing and am sorry that this was not mentioned,” Chemerinsky said in an email.
Gundersen said the bar examiners conference is “looking at several options to help jurisdictions interested in offering online exam components, but are not yet in a position to commit to what is possible given the short timeline.” As of April 27, 16 jurisdictions, including California, have postponed the July bar exam; two jurisdictions are offering a fall administration in addition to the July administration, she said in an email.
The California Supreme Court “advanced perhaps the least favorable alternative to traditional licensing out of all options provided. In doing so, the Supreme Court is delaying access to legal services during Covid-19 and suspending the start of many legal careers,” said Donna Saadati-Soto, a Harvard Law student and student leader of the coalition United for Diploma Privilege.
The June “baby bar” for first-year law students at unaccredited schools will be administered online with remote and/or electronic proctoring. Students will have four opportunities, instead of the current limit of three, to pass the exam to be eligible for law school credit beyond the first year. The October first-year exam, which tends to be taken by California students attending law schools that lack state accreditation, will be postponed from October to November, the letter said.
The bar also should allow those registered for the regular exam now scheduled in September to withdraw with a full refund through Sept. 8, according to the Monday letter. Exam results should be disclosed to takers no later than Dec. 31, the court said.