Law Students

California Supreme Court Pressured to Cancel Bar Exam for New Lawyers in Pandemic
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Aspiring attorneys signed up to take the California Bar Exam are growing increasingly jittery towards the state’s indecisiveness regarding the date and format of the licensing test as California officials are still scrambling to make a decision.

The state officials are weighing a variety of viable options, including a remote exam to be administered in September in lieu of the initially scheduled July dates. The Supreme Court of California ordered that the bar originally scheduled for July 28-29, be postponed to Sept 9-10, additionally urging the state bar to make “every effort” to administer the test online with remote proctoring.

Around that time, a group of seventeen California law school deans in a letter to the state supreme court asked the justices to offer provisional licenses for 2020 applicants, which would allow them to practice law under supervision by a licensed attorney, until they eventually take and pass the bar.


Instead, the high court in a June 10 letter to the State Bar of California’s board of trustees confirmed that the test will be administrated online, but raised the prospects of pushing back the date of the bar to October.

Law school graduates had the chance to show their concerns from the agonizing “guess the date for the bar exam”, during an emotional three-hour Zoom meeting July 7, with the California Bar’s Board of Trustees.

Applicants expressed their disquietude and strong feelings about how the overly costly bar exam preparation amid the uncertainty caused by the pandemic has got them emotionally and financially drained, especially test-takers of poorer backgrounds and minority law students.

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Dominique Boubion, a law graduate of Chapman University and one the authors of the 440-page report submitted to the Supreme Court and State Bar said that 91 percent of the survey respondents are currently experiencing hardships, such as financial and housing insecurity.

Over 80 percent of the survey respondents said they are uncomfortable with taking the online exam, and the study shows that test-takers who are unfamiliar with the testing process tend to have higher levels of anxiety resulting in poorer academic performance.

“The decision to postpone the bar has strained applicants’ finances while simultaneously limiting their opportunity to find a job and make money when they needed it the most.” Boubion said on the Zoom call.

“The bar is not a fair determination of competence,” said Deborah Jones, another caller into the Trustees’ meeting. “It really isn’t.”

Now, the push for diploma privilege increasingly intensifies in California as well as in many states across the country. Recent law school grads bolstered by the state’s lawmakers and law school deans urge the state board of examiners to waive the bar exam and let them practice law without taking the test.

By now three states — Utah, Washington, and Oregon — have joined Wisconsin in allowing in-state aspiring attorneys to practice law without taking the bar exam, while New York has proposed legislation to grant emergency diploma privilege.

United for Diploma Privilege, a group mostly made up of recent law graduates, initially aimed its efforts at the California State Bar and has now sparked a global movement. The diploma privilege campaigns are applauded and supported by legal academics and legal experts throughout the country.

Several California law school deans from UCLA, UC Hastings, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine recently spoke with the California Supreme Court to advocate that all graduates be granted diploma privilege.

Stanford Law School dean Jenny Martinez in an email to students obtained by Stanford daily wrote that she “ha[d] been participating in a joint effort by the deans of the ABA-accredited schools in California to urge the bar to grant some form of diploma privilege.”

Diploma privilege advocates insist this movement is not meant to skip a difficult exam simply, but given the urgency of the overall situation, they feel being excused from the exam is only fair.

“It’s encouraging to see recent graduates leading the way in advocating and mobilizing support for diploma privilege and other alternatives to the traditional bar exam. It’s discouraging, however, to see the haphazard way in which many jurisdictions have responded to this crisis.” Aaron N. Taylor, Executive Director of AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence, told JD Journal.

“Diploma privilege is a serious proposal that deserves serious consideration. It has existed in Wisconsin for more than a century, with no discernible harm to the quality of lawyering there. Jurisdictions could use this crisis as an opportunity to not only treat bar-takers humanely but to also conduct real-time experimentation around alternative pathways into the bar.” Taylor said.

Taylor said that states that have acted decisively in laying out alternatives to their traditional exam deserve much credit.

“Now you see jurisdictions that insisted on maintaining their traditional exam having to alter plans just weeks before those exams were scheduled to take place. And still, others are insisting on hosting traditional, in-person exams, even in the face of rising COVID infection rates in most places. All of this adds needless stress and uncertainty to an already stressful process in already uncertain times.

“Prior to this crisis, some jurisdictions had already begun exploring the extent to which the traditional bar exam effectively measures minimum competence to practice law. This crisis provides an opportunity to truly test that question and at the same time demonstrate that humanity trumps process in urgent situations like this,” said Tayor.

California’s bar exam, given twice a year, is considered among the hardest in the nation. Out of 4,200 applicants who took the February Bar Exam, only 1,128 passed. While the cut score is higher for the second exam of the year, when thousands of first-time applicants take the tests, experts say the exam is flawed and hurts minority graduates.

About 9,500 students are teed up to take the 2020 California bar exam, said State Bar spokeswoman Teresa Ruano.



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