California’s main bar exam should be paused until September or provisional diploma privileges should be granted to law graduates, the California Bar’s Board of Trustees recommended.
The options were announced Tuesday at a meeting about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on law students facing jarring, last-minute uncertainties about credentials needed to begin their careers. They will be detailed in a letter sent to the state supreme court, which will decide how to proceed later this month.
The trustees suggested a delay of the main bar exam from July 28-29 until Sept. 9-10, with options to hold it in-person or online. The so-called “baby bar” for students from schools not accredited by the bar, would be held online on its currently scheduled date of June 23.
Under a second scenario, both bars would be canceled with an option for the court to grant some type of “emergency diploma privilege” to allow law school graduates to begin practicing without first clearing test hurdles.
The board recommended that the court may wish to ask the state bar to convene a working group, which, according to a bar spokeswoman, would study “a provisional certification program for eligible individuals who have satisfied all requirements for admission other than passage of the bar exam.” They would work under the supervision of a licensed California attorney.
Several speakers at the meeting endorsed the notion of canceling the exams in favor of a diploma privilege.
Some of the dozen-plus speakers—seen via a Zoom teleconference meeting—urged the panel to recommend to the state supreme court that a diploma privilege be granted.
Any delay would be unfair to law grads anxious to move on with their lives, some said.
“We have debts. We have families. We have jobs,” said Jake Pillard, a third-year student at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. “Forcing the entire class of 2020 to come back at some unknown date puts everything at risk.”
The court will decide on a path forward on April 22, according to an April 8 letter from a court official to Donna Saadati-Soto, a third-year Harvard Law School student.
Saadati-Soto helped organize a coalition of more than 1,300 law students, recent graduates, law school professors and practitioners, all in favor of emergency diploma privileges.
Pilar Escontrias, a third-year student at the University of California at Irvine School of Law and the coalition’s other organizer, said the group generally favors the type of privilege granted in Utah so long as it is “much wider in scope.”
“We vehemently disagree with the Utah proposal as it only benefits a small percentage” of graduating third-year law students, said Escontrias.
The Utah rule would only allow the diploma privilege to those who graduated between May 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, and only from American Bar Association-accredited law schools “that had a first-time taker bar examination passage rate in 2019 of 86%" or higher.
“California has an opportunity to show how the legal profession can creatively, ethically, and compassionately brainstorm” how states should act in times of crises, Escontrias said.
Pillard echoed the sentiment. “It’s not too late for California to show leadership,” he said. “We can lead the nation on this. This is California, after all.”
Several states have struggled with how best to proceed with their bar exams as the crisis unfolds. New Jersey and Tennessee are among other states to address the issue in recent weeks.
The ABA Board of Governors also weighed in April 7, when it urged states to adopt emergency rules authorizing recent law graduates unable to take a bar exam because of the virus to engage in limited practice of law.
California’s administration of the bar is only likely to improve from last year’s drama over the inadvertent release of exam topics to 16 law school deans.
The bar also failed to consult with the state Supreme Court before disclosing the test subject areas to all test takers, an outside probe found.
That report, released last November, was overseen by Arthur G. Scotland, a Sacramento, Calif.-based of counsel with Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni.