Monday, March 23, 2020
The Class of 2020 has suffered blows like no other graduating class. Domestic K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students alike have been informed that they are not allowed to return to their physical campuses, and must continue their school year online. Hardest hit are the presumptive graduates of the class of 2020. They must forego prom, senior skip day, all manner of internships and externships, competitions - from moot court to state basketball playoffs, science fairs, presentations, and call-back interviews. These students resume academic life, complete with homework and online class presentations, only to confront the added heartbreak of not being able to walk across the stage adorned in cap and gown or hood. My heart aches for the entire class of 2020 who will be unavoidably denied a great rite of passage: the commencement and hooding ceremony with all its pomp and circumstance.
But for law school graduates, the heartache may not end with foiled graduation plans. All medical and environmental indicators would suggest that the July bar exam cannot go forward as scheduled.1 But eleven law professors have said: Enough. While none of us can undo any of the devastating impact of COVID-19, state and national bar examiners can and should consider alternatives to licensure to maintain the influx of new lawyers into the legal profession. In a recently distributed policy paper, The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action, Professor Deborah Jones Merritt joined with ten other notable legal scholars to pose alternatives to licensure that would allow 2020 law graduates to enter the ranks of the legal profession without costly and undue delay.
According to the paper, the legal system depends on a yearly influx of new law graduates to maintain service to clients. The scholars, in a unified voice, reasonably predict that the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will create an increased need for legal services. Says Merritt et al., “[o]ur 2020 graduates have knowledge and skills that will be particularly helpful in responding to the legal needs of a population stricken by COVID-19,” as “these graduates are fully equipped to function online, a skill that some senior lawyers lack.”
The paper poses six alternatives to the standard summer exam administration, and argues that postponing the exam for weeks or months is not a viable alternative with the uncertainty and medically likely resurgence of the COVID-19 virus. The paper’s authors urge the licensing jurisdictions, and most notably the NCBE that controls the Multistate exams, to consider an emergency diploma privilege, or supervised practice as an alternative in this limited and exigent circumstance that the pandemic presents.
Whether or not the bar examiners agree with the proposals, the time to act decisively is now. Keeping the class of 2020 in limbo about the administration of the July exam, piles onto the existing educational disruptions it has already suffered. Any substantial postponement of the exam will have harmful effects on the candidates who hope to join the legal profession this year.
According to Tammy King, Assistant Dean for Professional Development at Washburn School of Law, “the public service employers who need someone who can practice immediately are among those most likely to wait to make offers or to make offers and start dates contingent on bar passage.” According to reported NALP data, as many as 41.3% of 2017 graduates who were employed within 10 months after graduation secured their jobs after bar results were released. CUNY Law professor @allierobbins may speak for the class of 2020, in a March 23 tweet, "Dear Bar Examiners, Please Listen to these Women."
1 The National Conference of Bar Examiners’ website contains the following update regarding administration of the July 2020 exam: “The bar exam is administered by individual jurisdictions, not by NCBE. We are in close contact with jurisdiction bar admission agencies as they consider possible options for the July exam in the event that shutdowns and prohibitions against large gatherings remain in effect.”