Bar examinees at the New York Javits Center in July. Summer bar exam test takers at the New York Javits Center in July. Photo: Monika Kozak/NYLJ

More than 1,000 students have signed a letter requesting a diploma privilege system in New York that would allow them to practice without sitting for the July bar exam—which is looking increasingly unlikely to take place as planned due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter, sent Thursday to the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the New York Bar Examination, argues that an emergency diploma privilege is the most effective way to ensure the flow of new lawyers into the profession who can help alleviate access to justice issues. Moreover, the letter says that quick adoption of an emergency diploma privilege system would help to ameliorate the stress and anxiety third-year law students are feeling about their career prospects.

“We believe that an emergency diploma privilege would best rectify any COVID-19 related inequities in the administration of the [New York Bar Exam] for the class of 2020, without compromising the quality of attorneys licensed in New York State,” reads the letter, which notes that law students will have differing abilities to study for the bar—should it take place—depending on their personal health and family circumstances.

Students from all 15 New York law schools have signed the letter—in less than 48 hours of circulating—as have students from 63 other law schools who plan to take the bar and work in the Empire State. More than 10,000 people typically take the July bar exam in New York.

Leslie Ann Caraballo, a third-year student at the City University of New York School of Law, said Thursday that she signed the letter because she and her classmates need some clarity about their professional future at a time of overwhelming uncertainty.

“We’re pretty much in limbo right now,” she said. “There is so much that’s unknown about what the next year will look like in terms of work and post-graduate life. And then there is the idea that we could be held up [by the bar exam.] It feels like the finish line has been moved for us.”

The state bar announced Monday that its bar exam task force is meeting on an emergency basis to make recommendations to the state court system on how to handle the July attorney licensing test. The court will ultimately decide what to do. State Bar president Henry Greenberg said in an interview Thursday that an emergency diploma privilege is among the approaches the task force will discuss. (Its first emergency meeting was slated to take place Thursday.) The task force will also consider postponing the exam or delivering the exam in an online format. Greenberg said that any decision by New York on how to handle the bar exam may well prompt other jurisdictions to follow suit.

“They understand that the need to formulate recommendations is urgent, and time is of the essence,” Greenberg said of the task force. “They’re going to work very quickly and will consider a range of options. We are laser-like focused on the needs of graduating law students right now. They are going through—in real-time—a life crisis.”

Extending an emergency diploma privilege to 2020 law grads is among the ideas floated in a recent paper by 11 legal academics and education policy experts that urged jurisdictions to make fast decisions about the July test. Postponing the test isn’t a great option since we don’t know when the pandemic will subside, they argue, and offering it online opens up issues of security, the authors noted. But versions of a diploma privilege, which Wisconsin has long offered to graduates of its two law schools and enables them to practice in the state without ever sitting for the exam, could work well under current circumstances, as could a system whereby recent graduates are allowed to practice under the close supervision of a licensed attorney.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops the bar exam, has warned against making quick decisions about the test and has urged thorough deliberation on the matter.

The law student letter notes that 86% of first-time bar takers from American Bar Association-accredited law schools passed the test on their first try in July of 2019. And the state should consider extending an emergency diploma privilege to graduates of ABA-accredited law schools outside of New York, it says. Such a move would not compromise the quality of the state’s new lawyers given the relatively high pass rate of that cohort of students, it notes. The letter makes clear that the fate of bar exam is weighing heavily upon them.

“We understand the importance of the bar examination as a method for measuring legal competencies,” it reads. “However, we do not believe that our careers should be put on hold in these circumstances. We must begin the hard work of rebuilding the lives of our friends, families, and neighbors through upholding the rule of law and fighting for justice.”