ABA wants grads to have limited legal powers if July bar exam nixed

The  July bar exam comes at a bad time, pandemic-wise. Large gatherings are prohibited by many states, and it doesn't appear that such an order will be rescinded any time soon.   

While a number of state jurisdictions have postponed the exam and a growing number of students are lobbying for diploma privileges, now its the ABA that's weighing in.

In a rare move, the ABA's Board of Governors approved a policy resolution  recently that urges state licensing authorities to immediately adopt emergency rules that would authorize 2019 and 2020 law graduates who cannot take a bar exam because of the pandemic to engage in a limited practice of law under certain circumstances.

Nationwide, either the highest court or a bar admission group in each jurisdiction regulates licensing procedures for their states and territories. The policy resolution by the ABA board seeks to allow last year’s and upcoming graduates of ABA-approved law schools to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney if the July bar exam in their jurisdiction is canceled or postponed due to public health and safety concerns arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

A handful of jurisdictions have already postponed their scheduled July bar exam. Some states, such as Tennessee and New Jersey, have adopted new rules to mitigate a hardship or disruption in the law graduate’s career. Others are expected to follow. The ABA recommendation would apply to only first-time bar takers and these individuals would have the ability to practice through 2021 without passing the bar exam.

“In this time of unprecedented change as we address the challenges of the world pandemic, the ABA is leading the profession to be resilient,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said. “By justifiably postponing bar examinations, states are protecting law students and the public’s health, but the lives and careers of law graduates are being adversely affected.

“We are offering guidance to state bar admission authorities that will assist them while still taking every precaution to guarantee clients are competently and professionally served,” she continued. “This guidance for an emergency law graduate rule will not only help the recent law graduates work within the legal sector in a meaningful way, but also will add more people to help address the increase in legal needs for individuals and businesses caused by this pandemic.”

The resolution’s report noted that these legal needs “are already enormous and will continue to grow,” and that tens of thousands of graduating law students could “serve the public in this crisis” and improve access to justice for all U.S. residents.

While the approximate 600 members of the ABA House of Delegates typically set policy at the ABA Midyear and Annual Meetings, ABA rules allow the Board of Governors to consider resolutions from ABA entities on urgent ABA or national issues between meetings of the House. This has happened, however, only a handful of times in several decades.