CA Bar Examination may be postponed or canceled due to spread of COVID-19

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Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the fate of the scheduled California Bar Examination in July is uncertain.

State Bar of California board of trustees chair Alan Steinbrecher sent a letter to the California Supreme Court on Thursday outlining two options to replace the exam scheduled in July. According to State Bar spokesperson Teresa Ruano, the California Supreme Court has the authority over this decision.

The letter lists several factors to consider when addressing the pandemic’s impact on students, such as increased difficulty studying, the effects of delaying the exam on students who have undertaken debt, the need for lawyers as a result of the pandemic and the need to ensure the “minimum competency of new licensees.”

“It is not feasible to administer an in person examination in June or July,” the letter reads. “Approximately 9,000 people typically sit for the July bar examination and the Governor announced yesterday that large gatherings of people must be avoided through August.”

The State Bar board of trustees prefers to postpone the July exam until September and prepare to administer the exam online, in person or both, according to the letter. If the exam cannot be administered in September, the letter advocates for a provisional certification program that would replace the bar exam as a prerequisite to licensure, where graduates could work under supervision.

The letter’s second option is canceling the July exam, with the next scheduled exam in February 2021.

The letter comes after UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UCLA School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin co-authored an article in The National Law Journal advocating for the postponing of the bar exam and for provisional licenses for students who are scheduled to take the bar in July.

Chemerinsky said it is “very likely” the exam will be postponed. He added that he would like for provisional licenses to be in effect until May 2022, when results for the February 2022 bar results are released.

Some students, however, are advocating for diploma privilege over provisional licenses. According to UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly law delegate Blake Danser, diploma privilege would allow anyone who has graduated law school and passes the state’s character and fitness evaluation to practice law.

According to third-year campus law student Janani Ramachandran, provisional licenses require that the bar be taken eventually, while diploma privilege does not. Ramachandran added that while she prefers diploma privilege, provisional licenses would be a “very close second.”

“The bar exam does not stop ineffective lawyers from practicing and may very well limit effective lawyers who simply do not perform well under those circumstances,” Danser said in an email. “The bar exam is a closed-book exam that tests specific areas of law that are often irrelevant to practice.”

Danser added that administering the exam online would enable students to cheat, and would negatively affect those who cannot find a suitable test-taking environment. Ramachandran also noted that because the exam is 16 hours and takes place over two consecutive days, internet access may be an issue for students if the exam were online.

According to third-year campus law student Clarissa Olivares, pushing the exam back without providing a provisional license or diploma privilege creates a delay that will financially burden many students.

Ramachandran said more lawyers are necessary now to help with issues brought up by the coronavirus outbreak such as unemployment benefits and evictions.

“Our dean has been incredibly supportive so far in recognizing that we’re not going to be able to take a bar exam any time throughout 2020,” Ramachandran said.

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.