Class of 2020’s free fall didn’t happen

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Photo by Mohammad Shahhosseini on Unsplash

The Class of 2020 had a lot to worry about, given they were graduating in the teeth of a global pandemic. There was their health, for one. Their family’s health. The bar exam. Upcoming debt payments. Oh, and a bummer of a job market …

But an interesting thing happened on the way to that mask-wearing, social-distancing plunge.

It didn’t completely pan out.

The Class of 2020 had better first-time bar exam results than the previous, non-pandemic class. It passed at an 82.83% clip, compared to the 79.64% passing rate notched by the Class of 2019, according to American Bar Association statistics.

Additionally, there was concern that the Class of 2020 would get hammered job-wise. When the pandemic began, many law firms cut back hiring or resorted to layoffs. Some grads who had jobs lined up lost them.

But that didn’t reach nightmarish proportions, either. While the percent of grads getting full-time, long-term jobs and J.D.-advantage jobs fell, it did not drop off of a cliff. For the Class of 2020, it was 77.4%, compared to 80.6% for the year before.

“The change in percentages likely reflects the pandemic’s impact on the legal market, cancellations and delays to bar admission exam administrations and an approximately 1.4% increase in the size of the graduating class,” the ABA said.

Indeed, the actual number of full-time, long-term bar-passage required or J.D.-advantage jobs decreased by only 714.

Some schools rocked employment. The Texas A&M University School of Law reported that 94% of its Class of 2020 found employment within 10 months of graduation. That was 10th nationally and first in Texas.

Traditionally great schools had great results, too. Of the 428 graduates of Columbia Law School, 403 had jobs. Nearly 300 got jobs at Big Law firms.

And the bar? There were many concerns about that too, given it’s normally a two-day event that takes place in packed auditoriums or arenas. Many students lobbied for diploma privilege — allowing one to practice without taking the bar — or other alternatives, such as a virtual test.

Students in Montana wrote to their jurisdiction, asking for diploma privilege: “[Petitioners] have been planning for the opportunity to join the legal profession in the same way so many others have — by passing a bar exam. They have expected to take a bar exam since the moment they applied to law school. They just did not anticipate having to do so in person during a global pandemic.”

Montana held the bar as planned in late July, with social distancing rules in place.

Students in as many as 33 states asked for some sort of relief. A coalition was formed called United For Diploma Privilege, which advocated that the nation’s jurisdictions take action. It was made up of graduates, lawyers and law school professors.

Many argued that holding the bar during the pandemic was particularly unfair to those facing economic hardship. Perhaps they were caring for family members or had to work and couldn’t study for the bar as diligently.


Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

In the end, only five jurisdictions offered diploma privilege: Washington, D.C., Utah, Washington, Oregon and Louisiana. They joined Wisconsin, which has had diploma privilege in place for decades.

Those jurisdictions did alter the bar passage results slightly. When graduates from those schools are taken into account, the bar passage rate for the Class of 2020 was 83.66%, about 1% higher than the rate reported above.

Dozens more jurisdictions decided to delay the test and hold it virtually, which had some hiccups. People of color and women complained that the facial recognition feature — to prevent cheating — failed at times. Some claimed that they could not log-on to take the test, placing an undue burden on them.

But it wasn’t all bad. In California, the percentage of first-time passers — 74% — was the highest in 12 years. It didn’t hurt that the cut score was lowered, a move that had been advocated for years given how that state bar is considered one of the toughest.

But maybe the improved bar performance was mitigated by other factors, such as grads having more time to study. Maybe today’s grads are so tech savvy that it didn’t matter that the bar exam was held virtually. Or maybe the grads were not about to let the pandemic derail their law careers any more than it already had.

After all, they had to finish their spring classes remotely. Most didn’t graduate with pomp and circumstance but via Zoom.

In short, they were already battle-tested.

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