Calif. High Court Not Waiving Online Bar Exam Due To Virus

By Mike LaSusa
Law360 is providing free access to its coronavirus coverage to make sure all members of the legal community have accurate information in this time of uncertainty and change. Use the form below to sign up for any of our weekly newsletters. Signing up for any of our section newsletters will opt you in to the weekly Coronavirus briefing.

Sign up for our California newsletter

You must correct or enter the following before you can sign up:

Select more newsletters to receive for free [+] Show less [-]

Thank You!

Law360 (September 23, 2020, 10:43 PM EDT) -- The California Supreme Court on Wednesday said law school graduates registered for the state's October 2020 bar exam will have to take the test if they want to practice law, the same day the court's administrative branch announced it was temporarily closing its San Francisco office because of COVID-19.

In a two-sentence docket entry, the high court denied a petition by diploma privilege advocates who had called the Golden State's plan to administer an online exam in early October "impractical, infeasible and inequitable" in light of the pandemic.

The court didn't explain its reasoning, but the California chapter of the group behind the action, United for Diploma Privilege, told Law360 on Wednesday that while they don't plan any further filings right now, their fight isn't over.

"We absolutely anticipated a rejection of diploma privilege," UDP leader Pilar Escontrias said. "We will be continuing to advocate for the court to consider other options aside from a remote proctored exam using ExamSoft technology given the documented failures of it."

Also on Wednesday, the court closed its San Francisco office "due to circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic." The closure will extend until Thursday, and any filings that can't be made electronically will receive an extension until Friday, the high court said.

In its petition, UDP urged the court to waive the bar exam requirement for practicing law and grant diploma privilege to state bar applicants who've graduated from law school, are registered for the upcoming exam and "otherwise meet all qualifications for admission."

UDP leaders Escontrias and Donna Saadati-Soto said they were writing on behalf of almost 1,900 supporters listed in the petition.

The online administration puts examinees at risk of encountering technological difficulties the day of the test, presents privacy concerns and disadvantages test-takers from marginalized groups, they said. Diploma privilege is therefore needed to ensure safe, expedient and equitable attorney licensure "that will address the exceptional and unprecedented challenges faced by the October 2020 California bar applicants," they said.

California's summer bar exam was initially slated for July, but in April the high court postponed it to September, citing "enormous challenges" stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. It was eventually pushed to Oct. 5-6 and shifted online.

UDP's petition was the latest in a string of similar requests made by diploma privilege advocates around the country who argue that the pandemic has led to delays and uncertainty surrounding the test that amount to an unconstitutional burden on examinees.

In Pennsylvania, the effort garnered the support of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which said it backed a limited plan to allow this year's crop of law school graduates to temporarily begin practicing law without taking the exam, although they should ultimately be required to take the test one day.

A group of law students took the issue to Pennsylvania's highest court last month, arguing that the threat of cyberattacks and technical glitches rendered the test an unreliable means of gauging a would-be attorney's competence as compared with a well-regulated emergency licensure system. Nevertheless, the high court denied the petition.

Advocates also raised the issue in Florida, but the state's highest court refused that request earlier this month.

Escontrias and Donna Saadati-Soto are representing themselves.

The state bar is represented in-house by James Jou Chang.

The case is In re: Temporary Waiver of the Bar Exam Requirement for Admission to the State Bar of California and Provision of Emergency Diploma Privilege, case number S264358, in the Supreme Court of the State of California.

--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath and Matt Fair. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

For a reprint of this article, please contact

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!