California Law Students Push to Skip Bar Exam During Pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Dozens of anxious law students flooded an emergency phone meeting of the California Committee of Bar Examiners on Monday to beg for automatic admission to the bar rather than face the uncertainty of a postponed exam.

Doubt of if and when the California bar exam, currently scheduled for July 28-29, will take place this year has set many students on edge. New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts have all decided to postpone their state exams until the fall “on dates to be determined.” The National Conference of Bar Examiners has announced it will decide May 5 whether to administer the multistate bar exam.

According to a message on the NCBE’s website, “Jurisdictions are at varying points on a decision about a July administration. Some have felt the impact of Covid-19 more severely than others. The goal is that by May 5 we will all know more and can have more confidence in our decision about whether there will be a July exam anywhere.”

To that end, students are asking for “diploma privilege,” where in an emergency situation like the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing public health crisis, law school graduates would be able to practice law without having passed the bar.

California’s bar exam committee held a public meeting Monday to collect feedback to give to the NCBE and the California Supreme Court, which oversees the State Bar.

The committee got more feedback than it bargained for. It heard from no less than two dozen law students, most of whom advocated for diploma privilege over postponement or some kind of online alternative.

Some students already have jobs lined up after graduation and are concerned that a delayed bar exam would jeopardize their careers.

But far more are unemployed, a status they expect will continue as the nation grapples with the economic fallout of a months-long shutdown. Others said they would be forced to choose between studying for the bar exam or caring for their immunocompromised parents.

Wendy Hernandez, a third-year law student at UC Hastings, said her family is counting on her ability to work. “I literally cannot afford to be unemployed longer than I had already planned and budgeted for. My family and my community is depending on me. We will not wait for a postponed bar. We simply cannot afford it,” Hernandez said.

Others said they are quarantined with multiple family members and would be unable to study for the exam at home.

“An online option is not feasible because with the stay at home order we don’t have access to our law libraries. Many of us are being consolidated into one house with many family members and we have no quiet space to study at all,” said Christina Mendoza, a student at UCLA.

Jake Pillard, a student at the McGeorge School of Law, said an online exam is “ridiculous” because of the security risks. Using a sports metaphor, he urged the committee to make the tough decision to allow diploma privilege, just as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver authorized suspending the NBA season.

“As with professional sports, we have leaders and we have clowns,” Pillard said. “We cannot ask students to put their lives at risk. Do we really think the restrictions on gathering will be lifted in 200 days? Life doesn’t stop, students have families and debt. The postponement of the bar is a position fit for a clown.”

Still others were worried about what would happen if they took a fall exam and failed, wondering if there would be enough time to study for the February test.

“My concern with postponing the bar unfortunately is many people don’t pass on their first time,” said Whitney Williams, a student at Pepperdine University. “If we do need to retake the bar in February, I’m wondering how we will study for this exam with very little time.”

The students bolstered their comments with a letter addressed to the California State Bar Admissions Board and Governor Gavin Newsom.

It raised the idea of diploma privilege as not a novel concept but one employed by the state at least twice in the past: after the 1906 earthquake and during World War II.

“As the state adapts to a new normal, so must law students. We must acknowledge the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has on certain populations of law students: immunocompromised students, low-income students, students who have contracted the virus, and students with significant family obligations. Enactment of diploma privilege, or the automatic admission to the bar, for recent graduates and the class of 2020 would ensure fairness and equity to all law students,” their letter says.

While committee chair Robert Brody insisted he wanted to hear from everyone, the committee was ill-prepared for the volume of public interest in Monday’s meeting. The phone line quickly filled to capacity within minutes of the meeting’s noon start time, foreclosing access to untold numbers of the public and press.

The meeting was also hampered by multiple audio issues, as a droning voice interrupted speakers at regular intervals to inform those on the call when anyone left or joined the meeting.

Some members of the public also refused to mute their phones, even when asked by the committee chair, subjecting listeners to a running commentary on the discussion. As students clamored to be recognized, they often talked over each other for considerable periods of time. The whole thing had the air of an unruly town hall.

Brody could barely hold it together.

“I don’t want to shortcut what people are saying. I’m not going to tell any member of the public what to say or not say,” he said when one committee member objected to the students’ repetitive remarks. “Part of public comment is that we want to hear from the public. I welcome it.”

Committee member Larry Kaplan pushed back. “I’m starting to get the impression there is a concerted effort to get people to speak and I’m concerned we could be here for hours,” he said.

But Brody responded, “I’m not sure what to say. That is kind of the purpose of public comment.”

But as the scheduled one-hour phone call stretched into three, he finally admonished, “It’s not necessary to repeat the comments of others.”

At the end of public comment, the committee adjourned to discuss the issue privately.

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