Calif. Bar Exam Pushed Back To September Due To COVID-19

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (April 27, 2020, 6:36 PM EDT) -- The California Supreme Court on Monday postponed the summer bar exam to September and ordered the state bar to do its best to administer the test remotely, citing "enormous challenges" stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

The court outlined its directives in a letter sent to State Bar of California Chair Alan K. Steinbrecher, adding that the bar should also allow anyone registered for the summer exam — originally set for July — to withdraw and receive a full refund. The exam will now be administered Sept. 9-10, and the court is considering developing a provisional certification program allowing law school graduates to work under the supervision of a licensed California attorney, per the letter. 

Supreme Court Clerk Jorge E. Navarrete said in the letter that the court had taken into account health and safety issues presented by the virus, as well as obstacles facing those who seek admission to the bar, particularly the graduating law school class of 2020.

"These adjustments recognize and will advance the manifest public interest in maintaining access to justice through competent and qualified legal services," Navarrete said.

A handful of other states have mulled changes to the bar exam and provisional licenses in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Bar Association said it supported a statewide proposal from a group of area law school deans to allow 2020 law school graduates to begin practicing law even if the bar exam is delayed.

Also this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced it had rescheduled its bar exam for September, though it warned that the new dates weren't set in stone given the uncertainty surrounding when social distancing protocol will be relaxed. Law school graduates in the Garden State will also be able to start practicing law ahead of the exam under the supervision of attorneys in good standing, the state Supreme Court said.

The New York Bar Association said in March that it was considering possible alternatives to holding the July bar examination, including postponing or administering the test remotely. And Massachusetts has pushed its test to September while also committing to proctoring the test online if state testing officials determine it's still unsafe to hold it at that time.

The California Supreme Court also instructed the California bar to work with the National Conference of Bar Examiners to facilitate an online version of the Multistate Bar Examination in September, administer the June 2020 first-year law students' examination online and give students four opportunities, rather than the usual three, to pass that exam. Additionally, the October first-year law students' examination will be delayed until November, according to the letter.

Navarrete said the court reached its decision after hearing from various stakeholders, including the Board of Trustees of the State Bar of California, the public, California law school deans and faculty, repeat examinees, graduating law students and attorneys licensed in other states seeking admission to California's bar.

He added that before the pandemic, possible alterations to the bar examination were already on deck to be considered by the court "and remain so as studies concerning the examination continue to reach their conclusion."

"The court remains committed to making an informed judgment concerning the future of the bar examination when the circumstances are appropriate," Navarrete said.

Donna Hershkowitz, interim executive director of the California Bar Association, on Monday said the state bar looks forward to working closely with the court and the National Conference of Bar Examiners in the coming months. There's a chance the court's direction will need amending, depending on how things shake out, she said in the statement. 

"If it is not possible to give the Multistate Bar Exam or a reliable and valid variation of the MBE online, other options will need to be considered," Hershkowitz said.

--Additional reporting by Mike LaSusa, Brian Dowling, Jeannie O'Sullivan and Matt Fair. Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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