In New York, future attorneys fret they are cramming for a two day exam that won’t take place. In Austin, Texas, law students discovered their test was cancelled only upon calling the exam venue. And in Arizona, 575 test takers are slated to file into the Phoenix Convention Center—even as COVID rages out of control throughout the state.
Welcome to the 2020 version of the bar exam, an ordeal that law school graduates have long confronted in order to join the legal profession, but which has taken on new levels of stress in the covid era.
The prospective lawyers are especially frustrated in light of what they perceive as a lack of transparency by the exam overseers or, in cases like Arizona, by a disregard for their safety. They have been sharing their frustrations in private social media forums, and sharing their experiences with @BarExamTracker—a Twitter account that has become a vital source of information about the exams.
“It’s not cool that the board of law examiner and states aren’t sharing information a timely matter,” says the law student behind the account, who would spoke on condition on anonymity as they feared retaliation from state regulatory bodies.
In an interview with Fortune, the law student recounted how many would-be test takers are exasperated because they have often made travel arrangements and studied for hundreds of hours for an exam that may not take place. The law student pointed in particular to the exam overseers in New York and New Jersey, who have refused to say a September test will be rescheduled—even though the public health situation appears to make that a foregone conclusion.
“Do you really think [Governor] Andrew Cuomo will allow 500 people to congregate inside this September?” they asked rhetorically.
Meanwhile, the law student’s concerns about identifying themselves does not appear unfounded. They noted that judges from state supreme courts (which oversee attorney licensing) have followed the Twitter account, and that some students have received an email warning that publicly criticizing the process could face scrutiny over their “character and fitness” to be lawyers.
In response to this pressure, would-be lawyers are pushing back by calling for “diploma privilege”—a right to become attorneys based on receiving a degree from an accredited law school. So far, their campaign has notched some victories as a few states, including Washington and Utah, have temporarily agreed to accept diploma privilege as a credential.
All of this has put pressure on the national gatekeeper to the legal profession, and organization known as the National Conference of Bar Examiners or NCBE.
The NCBE has angered many test takers by offering an online version of its test—but saying that those who pass it online can only use it for admittance into the state where they wrote it. Ordinarily, passing the NCBE’s test means a lawyer is entitled to practice in multiple states.
A spokesperson for the NBCE defended the body’s efforts to accommodate students during the COVID crisis.
“There is no major profession that uses an at-home remote or online licensure exam,” said the spokesperson by email. “Because of the high-stakes nature of professional licensing exams, in-person, proctored exams are the most fair and secure way to license recent graduates.”
Others disagree with the NCBE, not only on how to administer the test online, but on whether the bar exam should even exist in the first place. This includes Annemarie Bridy, a former law professor who now works as an attorney for a large tech company.
“It’s a deeply, deeply protectionist situation as they make a ton of money from credentialing,” she says. “The bar exam has outlived its credibility and its usefulness.”
Bridy notes that much of the exam remains focused on esoteric areas of law, while failing to include more contemporary subjects like intellectual property.
More broadly, she says, the bar exam is primarily a high stakes multiple choice test that may amount to a “hazing ritual” more than a means of deciding who is fit to practice law. Bridy also notes that schools and society in general are moving away from using such tests, and suggests that an outside body like the American Bar Association should review the NCBE’s quasi-monopoly over the process of licensing lawyers.
While the situation in some states is fluid, as more test overseers say they will revisit their plans for in-person tests, other states are going ahead with their exams as planned.
In the meantime, many would-be lawyers are continuing to sweat over their fate—and their Twitter feeds.
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