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N.Y. Should Scrap In-Person Bar Exam, Top State Senator Says (1)

July 14, 2020, 5:59 PMUpdated: July 14, 2020, 6:59 PM

New York should scrap plans for an in-person bar exam this year due to the public health impacts of Covid-19, the No. 2 state Senate Democrat said in raising an issue faced in other states wrestling with how to get graduates through the eligibility step so their careers aren’t delayed.

In a letter to New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris (D) urged that the state’s highest court find alternatives for this year’s Sept. 9-10 exam. Gianaris said the test should be moved online, or that qualified graduates of New York law schools be offered diploma privileges. That would let them practice without taking an exam.

The fast-evolving bar exam dilemma in New York mirrors challenges other states face, as they try to weigh the interests of test-takers and proctors anxious to avoid risking their health, against concerns of state officials about granting new law licenses to unqualified attorneys.

“The bar exam is stressful under normal circumstances—months of studying leading to a lengthy exam in a crowded room. That is simply unwise and impossible to execute this year,” Gianaris said in a statement. Looking for exam alternatives, including a possible online exam, “would prevent a public health catastrophe when recent law school graduates are scheduled to sit for this exam,” he said.

In March, the New York Court of Appeals announced that the exam would be rescheduled for the fall. One month later, the court approved a program designed to allow for qualified law graduates to receive temporary licenses, if they agree to be supervised by a qualified attorney.

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.

A New York state Bar task force on March 30 rejected the idea of a diploma privilege, warning that “the absence of an examination would create unacceptable risks that persons lacking minimum competence to practice law would gain admission in New York.”

But in his July 13 letter to DiFiore, Gianaris said that despite these concerns, “the risks associated with a further postponement or the holding an in-person exam in September 2020 are too great to be ignored.”

Those responsible for the administration of New York’s bar exam have come under fire this year for other reasons as well.

The New York State Board of Law Examiners had initially said there were limited seats for the September bar exam—and that graduates of the 15 law schools located in New York state should get first crack at them.

This proposition spurred a mini-uproar among graduates of non-New York law schools eager to take the bar so they could work in the state, as well as a coalition of deans from law schools outside the state who urged officials to find new ways to address the issue.

The board defused the controversy on June 23 when it changed direction, noting that “All candidates who successfully completed an application to sit for the bar exam will be assigned seats,” as long as they provided proof of eligibility and fulfilled other requirements.

(Paragraphs nine through twelve add information about another controversy involving the 2020 N.Y. bar exam.)

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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