New Attorney Licensing and the Bar Exam During COVID-19
Taking the bar exam is a pivotal point in the transition from law student to lawyer. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those preparing for bar exams across the country have faced a number of setbacks. State bar examiners have oscillated between postponing in-person exams to instituting online exam platforms. Law students and professors alike have called for the enactment of an emergency diploma privilege which would allow all graduates to practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney—totally bypassing a bar examination.
For some seasoned attorneys, the bar exam may seem like a distant memory, but it is important to understand the current licensing procedures for new attorneys as your firm goes about the process of hiring new associates. Below is a breakdown of how some states are handling new attorney licensing during this unprecedented time.
New York was initially one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak. The state also has the highest number of resident lawyers; the ABA reports that in 2018, there were approximately 177,035 active lawyers residing in New York. With so many attorneys in the state, it is unsurprising that the New York State bar exam is one of the most popular bar exams in the country, with over 10,000 individuals sitting for the exam in 2019.
As the current health crisis continued to plague the state, it became apparent to New York bar examiners that it was not feasible to administer the regularly scheduled July 2020 bar exam. The typical setting for bar exams—a crowded convention center or similar venue—is not conducive to social distancing measures, so the New York State bar examiners first took steps to postpone the July 2020 exam until September 2020.
Many New York law professors and law school graduates urged the state to cancel the bar exam and institute a diploma privilege. However, the New York Court of Appeals firmly rejected the notion of an emergency diploma privilege in July of 2020. The Court said, “The working group rejected a temporary diploma option, noting that the bar exam provides critical assurances to the public that admitted attorneys meet minimum competency requirements, emphasizing New York’s immense candidate pool as well as the degree of variation in legal curricula across the country.”
As of August 2020, the New York bar exam is set to be held via an online format on October 5 and 6, 2020 as a one-time emergency option, but this may be subject to change.
Like New York, Florida has faced significant challenges due to the coronavirus outbreak and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners have also had to adapt to the changed circumstances surrounding the exam.
Initially, the Florida bar examiners announced that the July 2020 bar exam would be postponed to August 19, 2020. As the rescheduled date approached, the online platform slated to administer the exam displayed serious technological glitches. Ultimately, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners announced on August 16, 2020, just three days before the rescheduled exam was set to take place, that the August exam was cancelled. The Board stated it was not technologically feasible for the test to be administered in a secure and reliable fashion with the current online testing system in place.
In its cancellation announcement, the Florida bar examiners pledged that there would be a successful online bar exam held in October 2020 and that applicants for the cancelled August 2020 exam would be eligible to sit for either the October 2020 exam or the regularly scheduled February 2021 exam. In a surprising move, perhaps in a tacit bid to acknowledge the stress the last-minute exam cancellation caused, the Board offered free mental health counseling to all August 2020 Florida bar exam applicants.
Among a multitude of bar exam changes and last-minute announcements, the California bar exam has perhaps experienced the most shocking change of any bar exam in the country. The California Supreme Court announced on July 16, 2020, that the score required to pass the California bar exam has been permanently reduced from 1440 to 1390.
The newly reduced standards will not retroactively apply to previously administered exams, but rather will be valid beginning with the next exam taking place on October 5 and 6, 2020. California initially rescheduled the summer exam offering to September 2020, but it too will be pushed back to October 2020. California is one of 16 states to announce that its bar exam will be offered online.
New Jersey has traditionally been a popular choice for law students and attorneys seeking a secondary license due to the state’s proximity to New York and Pennsylvania. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s response to COVID-19 was one of the quickest and most comprehensive of any state in the country, along with its understanding of the future impact on New Jersey bar exam applicants. On April 6, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that based on guidance from the New Jersey Department of Health, it appeared unlikely that the COVID-19 pandemic will be abated to a degree that would make the regularly scheduled July 2020 bar exam a plausible option.
As one of the earliest adaptors of the October 2020 online bar exam, the Court’s rationale for administering a remote exam is very straight forward. The Court stated in its announcement that, “like other court functions that have transitioned successfully to remote operations, a remote bar examination will maintain professional standards and public confidence at a time when health officials counsel against large, in-person events.”
Also included in the April 6, 2020, New Jersey Supreme Court announcement was the Court’s decision to temporarily expand the provisions that govern the practice of law for non-licensed attorneys. Specifically, the court has authorized 2020 law school graduates the ability to temporarily practice law under specific conditions, including supervision by the committee on character.
Other States Participating in the October 5 and 6, 2020 Online Bar Exam include:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
For more information and future updates, visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners website.
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