Students in exam hall Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Jurisdictions now have the option to offer the bar exam in the fall.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops the nationwide test, announced Friday that it will offer an alternate date for the all-important licensing exam for jurisdictions that cannot, or choose not to, move forward with the July administration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The national conference has not yet canceled the July exam. It will decide the fate of the July test no later than May 5, with the idea that it will have a better idea of whether enough jurisdictions want to move ahead with the test and whether public gathering restrictions will even make it possible.

“By that time—roughly six weeks from now—each jurisdiction should be in a better position to determine whether administering a July exam is possible,” reads the announcement on the national conference’s website. “While this is not the immediate answer some are seeking, it does provide a definite timeline for [the national conference’s] decision about whether to make our tests available for July.”

If some jurisdictions do offer the bar exam in July, the national conference will prepare a different test for the fall—the date of which has not yet been finalized, conference president Judith Gundersen said Friday.

Moving to a fall bar exam would delay admission for test takers by about two months, the national conference noted, but that’s preferable to waiting until the February 2021 exam.

“There are no simple answers and no great solutions in this situation,” read the national conference’s statement. “We are trying to provide some certainty in truly uncertain times, while maintaining the integrity of the bar admissions process for the benefit and protection of the public.”

Any postponement of the bar exam may not sit well with graduating law students, some of whom have begun to organize and lobby their jurisdictions for a one-time emergency diploma privilege that would enable them to practice without taking and passing the bar.

Brian Heckmann, a third-year student at Florida International University College of Law, said simply postponing the bar exam until the fall is short-sighted.

“Given the nature of this pandemic, there is no guarantee we won’t be in the same position come the end of August that we are in now,” he said Friday. “What would happen then? Keep kicking the can down the road and delay the ability for graduates to practice indefinitely?”

Delaying the admission of new lawyers would also exacerbate the nation’s growing unemployment problem and force new law grads to take jobs for which they are overqualified while they await the opportunity to take the bar, he added.

Bar examiners and court systems have come under increasing pressure this week to make swift decisions about the fate of the bar exam, in part to help alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty graduating law students feel about the future and their professional prospects.

A widely read paper released March 23 by 11 legal academics and education policy experts argues that jurisdictions should act fast in adopting alternatives to the July bar, given that it seems increasingly unlikely that it will be safe to gather so many people together at that time. The paper argues against postponing the exam, given that the COVID-19 pandemic may stretch on in waves and that predicting when it will be safe to convene in large numbers is difficult.

“Postponing and then canceling the exam would be devastating for bar exam offices, exam-takers, employers, low-income clients, and small businesses,” says the paper, which argues that some form of a diploma privilege or a system under which graduates practice under the supervision of an established attorney, are the most promising options right now.

Meanwhile, law students are coalescing around the diploma privilege concept. More than 1,000 law students this week signed a letter to the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the New York Bar Examination asking it to quickly adopt a diploma privilege for 2020 graduates of American Bar Association-accredited law schools, arguing that it is the fairest way to handle the unprecedented situation while also ensuring new lawyers come online to address access to justice issues.

Law students in Florida are also pushing for a diploma privilege. By Friday morning, nearly 2,000 had signed a petition calling on the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to extend an emergency diploma privilege to 2020 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools who had registered for the July test.

“Such privileges could easily come with stipulations that ensure the competence of those admitted to the practice of law so as to protect the public from unqualified lawyers,” the petition reads.

The national conference acknowledged in its Friday announcement that graduating law students are facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty.

“We recognize that this is a very stressful time for law school graduates who want the opportunity to take the bar exam,” it reads. “To those graduates, we offer our support and the assurance that we are working hard to find solutions that permit them to sit for a bar exam and become licensed.