With bar exams pushed off to the fall, law school graduates anticipating to graduate next month will be allowed to temporarily practice law under the supervision of experienced attorneys under an order signed Monday by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
The 2020 bar exam, originally scheduled for July, has been postponed until the fall due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The court order is meant not only to help fulfill legal needs during the state’s prolonged public health emergency, but also to buffer the economic blow for recent graduates.
Several states, including New York, have said they are considering similar moves in light of bar exam complications because of COVID-19, but New Jersey looks to be the first state to have made the supervised practice arrangement official.
“At this challenging time, the public has a continuing and growing need for legal services in many critical areas,” Rabner stated in a release accompanying the order. “Newly admitted lawyers can help meet that need. The Court also recognizes that, without a means to pass the bar and obtain a law license, qualified students who expect to graduate this spring may lose job offers, be unable to find legal work, and otherwise suffer financial hardship.”
The pandemic’s impact on the legal community has been widespread. Firms and courthouses have shuttered with employees working remotely and all new jury trials in New Jersey suspended, among the venues hit hard.
Under Monday’s order, graduates will, under supervision of attorneys in good standing, be able to: enter appearances, draft legal documents and pleadings, provide legal services to clients, engage in negotiations and settlement discussions, and provide other services.
First, they must apply to take the first exam scheduled after graduation, or qualify for a single extension, and earn certification from the Supreme Court Committee on Character, and submit all needed materials and fees, before they can practice, according to the order.
Rabner said the Supreme Court had consulted with the deans of New Jersey’s law schools: Kimberly Mutcherson and David Lopez, co-deans of Rutgers Law School; and Kathleen M. Boozang, dean of Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark.
They “appreciate the careful and expeditious work of the New Jersey Supreme Court to enable the class of 2020 to enter the profession and begin their legal careers,” the three deans said in a joint statement on Monday. “We look forward to working with the Court to facilitate the administration of the bar exam, whenever that becomes possible.”
The order encourages attorneys to volunteer to help the Committee on Character expedite the review process.
The temporary ability to practice law will lapse if a graduate does not sit for the first bar exam scheduled after graduation, unless granted an extension, or if the graduate does not pass the exam, according to the order.
Graduates who cannot sit for the first exam can apply to the New Jersey Board of Bar Examiners for a single extension if they can establish a specific showing of personal hardship under the order. No further extensions will be granted, the order says.
Rabner said in order to prepare for the exam, 2020 graduates serving as law clerks in the New Jersey judiciary will be granted one week of additional leave. Individual judges will have discretion to allow a second week of leave, he added.
The order also encourages supervising attorneys, law firms, and other legal employers to offer 2020 graduates the same accommodation, according to Monday’s release.
On March 9, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a statewide public health emergency and proceeded to virtually shut down all businesses and schools through a series of executive orders meant to curb the spread of the respiratory disease.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the death toll from COVID-19 had risen to 1,232 in New Jersey, according to Murphy, who gave his daily coronavirus briefing to the media, this time wearing a face covering for the first time. The number of statewide cases as of Tuesday was 44,416, second only to New York, which has emerged as the epicenter of the respiratory disease.