In-State NY Bar Exam Sign-Ups Soar, Drawing Out-Of-State Ire

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360 (May 5, 2020, 8:42 PM EDT) -- State court officials on Tuesday reported thousands of registrations for the rescheduled summer New York bar examination on the first day to sign up, as in-state law school students flocked to fill a limited number of seats amid a pandemic that has upended the process.

Since registration opened at midnight, more than 2,600 students at New York's 15 law schools had signed up by 3 p.m. after being given priority to take the test. The Court of Appeals decided Friday that only in-state students would be allowed to register as a way to whittle down the number of test-takers, given a limited number of proctors and the need to use smaller venues for public health reasons.

As of Tuesday, 19 states have canceled or postponed their July exams, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. New York canceled its July bar exam a month ago and rescheduled it for Sept. 9-10.

"The problem of seating everyone who wants to take the September bar exam has been an agonizing one," said New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in a video address Monday. "Because of the pandemic, seating capacity for the September administration will be sharply limited."

It is still not clear how limited the number of seats will be, court officials told Law360 on Tuesday, as in-state law students scramble to sign up during the 10-day window. Even on the first day of registrations, the roster is rapidly approaching the anticipated total of 4,000 in-state law and Master of Law students who take the bar each year, according to court officials.

Typically, more than 10,000 students take the state's summer bar exam, court officials noted.

The decision to give preference to in-state students arises from a practical matter, court officials said: New York law schools are providing the test-taking venues free of charge, and they want to ensure that their students have priority to take the test.

The move to restrict registrations to in-state students set off a backlash over the weekend from law school deans and students outside of New York who protested being shut out.

On Saturday, deans at 21 top law schools across the country fired off a joint letter saying that "the news of your approach has fallen hard on the many students who had planned to sit for the bar in New York," adding that they were worried that the "resulting delay in the exam's administration and admission to practice will fall hardest on the most economically vulnerable" and those who may not be able to stay in the country.

Chief Judge DiFiore responded Sunday, seeking to soothe those concerns by saying the out-of-state students are "very much on our minds" as the court responds to the "unprecedented public health crisis" that has restricted travel and banned mass gatherings.

"Our strategy of renting convention centers and other large venues across the state, and seating thousands of test-takers at each site, cannot be safely implemented," Chief Judge DiFiore wrote.

"While the initial application period has, by necessity, been limited to a subset of candidates, we intend to reassess our seating capacity and application pool on a regular basis with the hope of eventually opening registration to a broader group," the chief judge said, before making a vague reference to a "sizable" seating capacity that would be "quite large in comparison to other jurisdictions."

A letter from out-of-state students protesting New York's in-state student registration policy had garnered nearly 200 signatures by Tuesday, including nearly 70 Berkeley Law students and others from UCLA, Northwestern, Harvard and even NYU.

The letter, penned by Berkeley Law student Daniel Chase, stridently denounced New York's decision to prioritize in-state students as "misguided" and "unduly discriminating against out-of-state students," noting that non-New York law students comprised a third of all New York bar exam test takers in 2019.

"There is no reason in-state law students should be privileged at the expense of out-of-state students," Chase said in the letter.

"It's an unfortunate quid pro quo for out-of-state law students, who were under the impression that they would be able to take the bar in New York," he said, referring to the in-state law school's providing testing facilities and their students getting priority to take the test. "It leaves us in the lurch. That's really unfortunate."

State courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen responded by saying that the students' "concerns mirror those of the deans and are exactly what is being discussed."

In an effort to relieve the strain on new graduates, the Court of Appeals already loosened regulations to allow graduates to practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney as part of a so-called temporary authorization program, court officials noted.

In her letter to the law school deans, Chief Judge DiFiore pointedly noted that other jurisdictions are not as inclusive of out-of-state-educated law students and "should be encouraged to reconsider their policies to allow for more inclusive administration of the exam."

The chief judge also counseled students to consider sitting for the uniform bar exam "in other jurisdictions that may be better positioned to accommodate test-takers at this time, or to defer sitting until next year."

Chase said students have been blindsided by New York's decision, which came just before his finals began on Monday. He and many others are searching for another state where he can take the uniform bar exam, because California does not administer the test. He was considering Maine, but has heard spots are filling up. Once he finds a state where he can register, he plans to pay fees to be admitted in that state, and then transfer the results to New York.

"It sort of just came out of left field," Chase said, explaining that students are scrambling to learn how they can take the bar and be admitted in New York. "Everyone is in group chats trying to figure out what to do."

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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