60% of states have changed this July’s bar exam

Preparing for the bar is stressful. Preparing for the bar during the COVID-19 pandemic is …

Well, an apt description is tough to come up with … 

This is uncharted territory. For one, the July bar — which attracts a lot more test-takers than the February date — is being offered in different forms and times, depending on jurisdictions. 

Nineteen states are plowing ahead and holding it in the traditional in-person fashion on the July dates, but with safety measures such as social distancing and mask wearing.

But that leaves 32 states and the District of Columbia which had made some kind of change. Seventeen states are holding the exam in September, including California and New York. Another six are holding it in both July and September, including Texas. 

Six more — Nevada, Michigan, Indiana, Washington, D.C., Louisiana and Maryland — are holding them online — a first.  

And three states — Washington, Utah and Oregon — are not even holding it, so grads can begin practicing law without taking it. They join Wisconsin, which has had a diploma privilege for more than a century.  

This is contentious, to say the least. One Oregon woman wrote to her local newspaper, lobbying for the diploma privilege: 

“I am 30 weeks pregnant as my husband, Casey, studies eight hours every day for a bar exam that the Oregon Supreme Court says it could cancel any time. My husband should not have to choose between sitting for the bar exam and risking our health during this unprecedented public health crisis.” 

For bar prep companies, such as Kaplan, this is a whole new world. Normally, it only has to focus on preparing students for one test date. Now, it’s looking at nearly a half dozen.

“Everything is changing rapidly,” said Tammi Rice, vice president of bar prep programs. “We’re closely monitoring every situation. They [our students] are closely watching. Everyone is on high, high alert."

Students are facing stress, no doubt. 

“We have to support them more than ever — both academically and emotionally,” Rice said.

However, she noted how resilient they are. They finished law school via Zoom. Graduations went virtual. They are battle-tested, she said. 

“Students are really good at pushing through it,” Rice said. 

Kaplan’s prep is flexible, she said, so it’s effective no matter the test date. Indeed, the firm monitors every student to know both the test date and the student’s life demands, which may have risen in the pandemic.

“We adapt the courses to fit their needs,” she said.

Nearly all students are moving forward with the bar even in these times, she said. They’re aware of what they are facing, and the stakes involved. They are not taking it lightly. 

However, some factors — such as taking a test in state with a COVID-19 spike — could come into play. Kaplan stresses that a student needs to feel comfortable in the exam environment, she said.  

“If that’s not the case, you need to rethink taking it,” she said. 

Students preparing for jurisdictions holding the July bar are worried about passing — and wearing masks. After all, it is a two-day test. On Reddit, one wrote: “This is probably a dumb question but where can I get comfy breathable masks? I have those cheap yellow masks that hurt my ears because of the elastic band.”

And another: “I have tried quite a few different masks and lemme tell you, none are comfortable lol. Tho I also have the concern of fogging up my glasses.”

A lot of people take the bar — around 80,000 annually, with some states, such as New York, attracting throngs of test-takers. Last year, more than 10,000 took the July bar. 

To be able to social distance is a challenge, which is why some are against holding live bar exams. 

“It’s just too dangerous to gather,” said Aaron Taylor, the executive director of AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. 

Jurisdictions are struggling with two key issues: How to hold the exam safely and timely. The longer it takes to hold exams, the longer graduates can’t practice, Taylor noted. 

Taylor, for one, has been advocating for jurisdictions to hold the test online and to do so as soon as possible. Holding exams online is not a novel concept, he said. The LSAT has moved online, for instance, in wake of the pandemic.

Holding it in-person is creating other problems as well. Look at New York. It’s limiting the number of test-takers this year because it’s concerned about having enough space to socially distance properly. So it’s offering it to graduates of New York schools first. If seats are left over, they will go to out-of-state candidates.  

If it were held online, that wouldn’t be an issue, Taylor noted. 

Some worry that holding the bar exam online would be unfair to people with lower incomes or families because they may not have the equipment or quiet environments to take the exam. Taylor believes that can be solved by offering study rooms at law schools to be available. State buildings could also be used, he said. 

The bar has been wedded to tradition for decades and could use some rethinking, Taylor said. The pandemic has created “real-time experimentation,” he said, which could lead to alternatives. 

And it’s critical that jurisdictions come up with alternatives because the pandemic may disrupt the February 2021 exam. 

“There could be issues in July 2021, too,” he said. “There are just so many unknowns.”