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3Ls facing clouds as bar exam is up in the air

Even in the best of times, the grind of preparing for the bar exam is often one of the most harrowing ordeals of a young lawyer’s career.

These are, of course, not the best of times, and the students preparing to graduate this spring from the University of South Carolina School of Law and Charleston School of Law have been hit with the double-whammy of not knowing if they will take the bar exam in July as scheduled because of COVID-19.

Each July, law school graduates from across the state gather in Columbia to take possibly the biggest test of their lives. But the National Conference of Board Examiners, which coordinates the Uniform Bar Exam, has said it will announce on May 5 whether enough jurisdictions have decided to go forward with the test, based on factors such as office closures, state and local restrictions on gatherings, and the availability of test venues. If they do, the conference will release the exam.

“By that time, each jurisdiction should be in a better position to determine whether administering a July exam is possible,” the NCBE says. “While this is not the immediate answer some are seeking, it does provide a definite timeline for NCBE’s decision about whether to make our tests available for July.”

As of April 7, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont have opted to postpone the exam until the fall. 

“I think students are just looking for certainty at this point, as everything that is uncertain is positional stress,” said Robert Wilcox, USC’s dean. “But I will tell you that if [the decision was made] today either to postpone it or not postpone it, there would be groups of students in either direction that would be stressed by either.”

And students are definitely stressed, said Alex Mende, a 3L at USC and president of the school’s Student Bar Association.“We are going into a time when we don’t know what the job market is going to look like–and it looks like it’s going to be terrible,” Mende said. “We have been working for three years on becoming lawyers, and now there is a lot of uncertainty even with that.”

What’s more, schools are changing their grading systems in response to the disruptions students are facing to their studies. USC has moved to a pass/fail system while Charleston is giving students a choice: Once they receive their final grades, students will have five days to make an all-or-nothing selection about whether to receive pass/fail grades or standard A-F grades for their whole transcript.

“This semester has been a massive change for everybody,” said Dyann Margolis, assistant dean for bar and academic success at Charleston School of Law. “It’s really tough.”

More than 2,000 students and law school graduates from across the country sent a letter to the NCBE on March 30 that asks it to encourage states and jurisdiction to waive the bar exam and replace it with diploma-privilege license, which allows attorneys to become bar members without taking the bar exam. (The NCBE is headquartered in Wisconsin, which has such a privilege).

The letter calls the pandemic a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, and says the Class of 2020 is faced with what is turning out to be the “greatest economic shutdown in modern history.”

“A lot of my friends feel like if we go to diploma privileges, maybe the law community won’t respect us,” Mende said. “The counterargument is that the law community will understand that this is a worldwide pandemic. I can’t sit here and tell you I’m not stressed about it. I am looking for a job right now. Six weeks ago, the job market was on my mind, but now even more so in that the economy is probably going to be tanked when we are done with this. In times like this, you have to have an open mind and be positive about it.”

The deans of North Carolina’s six law schools—Campbell Law School, Duke Law School, Elon University School of Law, North Carolina Central University School of Law, the University of North Carolina School of Law, and Wake Forest University School of Law—have sent Herrick a letter encouraging the board to stick with the July schedule.

“As we discuss this topic with our graduating students, they are deeply concerned at the prospect of the exam being delayed,” the letter says. “Many fear they will lose jobs they already have, while others will be delayed in entering the job market at a time of financial insecurity. We worry about the mental toll on our students if the anxiety of bar exam preparation is extended for a prolonged period. We sincerely hope that the Board of Law Examiners will explore every possible format and use of technology to keep the exam on schedule.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw

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