Bar Exam Battles

The looming specter of COVID-19 reveals conflicts in the legal community


The Bar exam continues to be a site of contention among the national law community due to the looming spectre of COVID-19.

Across the country battles continue to rage over the method by which the test will be taken or if it should be taken at all. Recent graduates have expressed concerns about their health and safety as well as the hardship of having to defer job prospects. The response across the country has varied by state. Some are requiring students to take the test in person, some are offering the Bar online, and a few states have waived the Bar entirely.

Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, and California are some of the states which have agreed to move their Bar exam online. Petitioners in Illinois were successful in getting their state association to move the Bar exam online, however their attempt to waive the bar requirement was rejected.

In New York, deans from the state’s law schools have urged the state Bar association to accept diploma privilege while the crisis continues. Washington, Louisiana, Utah, New Jersey and Oregon have already opted to exchange the exam requirement for diploma privilege.

In keeping with its iconoclastic reputation, California has instituted a hodgepodge of changes to its process; moving the exam online, lowering the passing score, and a temporary provisional licensure program.

Not all states have been accommodating to petitioner’s concerns about student safety, however. Nebraska and Montana are two of over twenty states going forward with an in person test. Safety measures at testing sites sufficiently address the dangers posed by COVID according to each state’s supreme court.

Adding to the confusion in the wake of the national crisis, questions of reciprocity across states are also raising concerns and leaving many aspiring lawyers in flux.

Additionally, while some might see the move from in person to online testing as a victory, others have expressed concerns about how the virtual test will exacerbate inequalities among test takers. Access to a stable internet connection and a quiet location offer privilege to the more affluent. There is also a worry that people with disabilities will be unable to have their needs met without taking the test in person. Critics assert eliminating the Bar exam entirely is the only equitable solution.

Equity concerns around Online test

As part of their argument against the Bar exam, advocates for diploma privilege have been citing the inherent inequity posed by the test itself.

Opponents have pointed to the racist history of the Bar, its ongoing problems with race, and its discrimination against low income students as reasons to dismantle its gatekeeping role in the legal profession.

Grassroots organizers seeking to eliminate the Bar have grown their organization to include chapters in 40 states, indicating a substantial interest in the change.

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