New Law School Graduates Face Strong Headwinds

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused some states to postpone this year’s bar exam, others to cancel it, and complicated 2020 law school graduates’ efforts to start a career and pay off their student loans.

The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the U.S. legal system and mounted obstacles in the way of 2020 law school graduates’ efforts to build a career. (AP photo/Brennan Linsley)

(CN) — Standing at the pinnacle of their academic careers, spring 2020 law school graduates are staring at a profession battered by winds of pestilence. And the dragon they’ve been preparing to slay, the state bar exam, is slipping out of range.

They’ve spent fortunes on their apprenticeships. Their average student loan debt is around $115,000. On a debt that big interest does not just accrue, it can cripple. They need to get to work — fast.  

In a typical year after walking the stage in their caps and gowns they would hunker down for weeks studying full-time for the July bar exam, putting in around 500 hours, including prep courses, which cost $2,000 to $5,000.

“You are crazy if you don’t take a bar preparation course of some kind,” said Nell Collins, who is to graduate in May from the University of Indiana Maurer School of Law.

But several states have postponed the exam until the fall, others indefinitely, taking a wait-and-see approach on the pandemic that has closed courthouses and stopped trials across the country, forcing law firms to slash pay, lay off and furlough staff and freeze hiring.

Kenneth Andres said his Haddonfield, N.J., personal-injury firm Andres & Berger is not hiring.

“We’ve seen a decrease in business because there are fewer cars on the road, so there are fewer motor vehicle collisions,” he said. “Folks are not out in the public suffering trips and falls, and all medical procedures, which are elective now in New Jersey, have been postponed.”

Collins said she has a clerkship lined up with an Allen County, Indiana, Circuit Court judge. She’s supposed to start in August. The Indiana Supreme Court is to decide on May 8 whether to push back the bar exam set for July 28 and 29.

“My clerkship is contingent upon my passing the bar and I’m not sure how that will change the position if I’m not able to go take the test in July,” Collins said. “We’re really afraid that some of the firms and legal employers will rescind their job offers if we aren’t able to take the bar.”

The Indiana Supreme Court has provided some flexibility: It’s letting people who graduated after November 2019 work as legal interns until the February 2021 bar exam.

But Collins, mother of a 2-year-old son, said that won’t work for many new graduates because they would have to take time off to study, leaving their employers in the lurch.

“If I have to do a job and on top of that study for the bar and be a mom, there’s just not enough time in the day,” she said.

Collins and some of her Indiana University classmates recently sent a letter to the Indiana Supreme Court, asking it to consider authorizing a “diploma privilege” for 2020 graduates whereby they could be admitted to the Indiana State Bar and receive their law licenses without having to pass the bar exam.

Students across the country are lobbying for this option.

California students, in an April 1 letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, said the state granted diploma privilege to graduates in 1906 after the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake leveled San Francisco, killed thousands and left more than 200,000 people homeless and during World War II.

Collins said she would prefer to prove her mettle by passing the bar in July.

“We don’t really want to be a class that has the stigma of not taking the bar over our heads. Because the bar, whether we like it or not, is an important rite of passage to being a lawyer,” she said.

The Utah Supreme Court is poised to let some 2020 graduates skip the bar and enter the realm of licensed lawyers as apprentices. They’ll have to do 360 hours of legal work under a state-licensed attorney by 2021 to become licensed.

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor Louisa Heiny said her students are showing true grit through the pandemic: A few have been infected by Covid-19, or their family members have; others have lost jobs or seen their businesses go bankrupt; and some are homeschooling three or four children while trying to study.

“Yet every day they all appear in my class over Zoom … sitting in basements and closets and front yards and any other quiet space they can find while their kids pop in and out of the frame,” she said.

“These aren’t students who are looking for an easy way out.”

University of Utah Student Bar Association President Chase Wilde.

Chase Wilde, the school’s student bar association president, said with campus closed he’s using his kitchen table as a desk and squeezing in an hour of bar study per day between prepping for final exams.

But he said his wife’s job as a mental therapist takes precedence and he has to leave their small home when she’s meeting with clients over Skype.

“I have to walk around the block for an hour or so until her sessions are over,” he said.

Utah has only one other law school, at Brigham Young University, and its diploma privilege proposal is tailored to the two schools’ 2020 alumni.

The privilege applies to American Bar Association-accredited schools whose graduates had a bar-passage rate of 86% or better in 2019. Both Utah schools meet the criteria.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law Dean Austen Parrish said he thinks other states will be reluctant to approve a diploma privilege protocol because most have a wider variety of law schools than Utah.

Take California, he said.

“There are schools in California, which are really high-ranked schools, that don’t meet that number. Places like University of California-Davis, University of California-Irvine,” he said. “And politically it’s going to be challenging because in a state like California that has a lot of lawyers, they have a lot of unaccredited schools and so the chances of them accepting a diploma privilege, at least right now, is probably slim.”

He said his law school meets Utah’s grade because 88% to 89% of its graduates passed the bar last year. “We don’t have a lot of students going to Utah. But we have a couple who are very happy,” he said.

Though the pandemic is wreaking havoc on law firms, the widespread damage is seeding potential claims when the courts reopen. More than 300 Covid-19 related lawsuits have been filed in U.S. courts in the past two weeks, with claims that include negligence, contracts, First Amendment issues, what constitutes an essential business, business losses, insurance, advertising phony cures, and on and on.

Though business for personal injury firms is down, experts predict the pandemic will cause business to pick up for lawyers specializing in employment, housing and civil rights, immigration, bankruptcies and corporate restructuring.

Shana Thomas, president of New York Law School’s Student Bar Association, believes she and her peers are equipped to enter the profession after three years of schooling.

“By this time, most 2020 graduates have already completed the required 50 hours of pro bono work and passed the NYLE [the New York Law Exam] and MPRE [Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination], two of the three tests required for admission to the New York State Bar,” she said.

“We are very much aware that as attorneys we hold our client’s life, liberty, or property in our hands, and I don’t know a single student who takes that responsibility lightly.”

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