Sarah Beechay is graduating from Hofstra University’s law school this spring and has a job lined up working in the family law department of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County in New York. Now she isn’t sure when she will be able to work.
Like many graduating law school students, she has seen her plans turned upside down as the coronavirus pandemic has spread and led states to cancel or postpone the July bar exam. Passing the bar before practicing as an attorney is a requirement in most states.
“It has probably been the most stressful time of law school,” said Ms. Beechay, who is 25 years old. “Every day I’m stressed, all my friends are stressed, and it’s all we can talk about. It’s like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and everything just collapsed.”
Ms. Beechay and the roughly 46,000 other soon-to-be law graduates across the U.S. who planned to take the July bar exam are now uncertain what their job status will be if they can’t take the test that permits them to be an attorney. In addition to a delayed bar exam, the job market for lawyers is starting to dry up. Law firms have reduced staff and cut pay as courts are largely closed, settlement discussions are on pause and few new deals are being struck.
In most jurisdictions, the bar exam is offered twice a year, in February and July. It is made available to the individual state courts that administer it by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, or NCBE. Earlier this month, the NCBE said it made additional tests available for Sept. 9-10 and Sept. 30-Oct. 1 for states that postpone the July test date.
States including New York, Hawaii and Massachusetts have announced plans to cancel or delay the summer bar exam. Each has to make its own decision whether to move the bar. States can also decide to implement temporary orders that allow new graduates to practice law and forgo taking the bar until 2021.
The Utah Supreme Court said earlier this month it will consider waiving the bar exam requirement for recent law school graduates. Decisions are based on a variety of factors including office closures, state and local restrictions on gatherings, and test venue availability, NCBE spokeswoman Valerie Hickman said.
The group is exploring what it would take to allow people to take the bar exam online. The NCBE is consulting with technology and security experts, but an online test is difficult to administer because the exam is 12 hours long and conducted over two days, Ms. Hickman said.
“The job market is beyond grim, and then they are in this no man’s land,” New York State Bar Association President Hank Greenberg said of new graduates’ inability to take the bar.
Matthew Bradley, 23, is graduating from Notre Dame’s law school this spring and has been planning to work for a law firm in Denver. His future employment at the firm hinges on his ability to take and pass the bar. So far, the state of Colorado hasn’t moved its scheduled bar exam date, but Mr. Bradley fears it is only a matter of time before every state alters its testing plans.
“If it got postponed, frankly, I don’t know what I would do,” Mr. Bradley said. “I couldn’t work. I have lots of bills to pay. It would create a domino effect for my future. I don’t think anyone in the class of 2020 is feeling very optimistic right now.”
Earlier this month, New York, which typically tests about 10,000 new law grads each summer, canceled the July exam and moved it to September. The postponement is creating a new logistical problem. The New York State Board of Law Examiners has said it can’t use the same large venues it typically does to administer the September exam. One of the state’s largest testing centers, the Javits Center in Manhattan, is currently being used as a hospital.
“It’s far from certain where we’ll be in early September,” Mr. Greenberg of the New York State Bar Association said, adding that it is possible the September bar exam dates could also be changed.
States including New York could decide to adopt an order that would allow new law graduates to work under the supervision of a licensed attorney until they can take the bar in 2021, either the February or July sittings, he said.
To accommodate test takers in smaller venues, the state board said it will have to prioritize which candidates will be able to take the test in the fall. So far it is unclear how that process would work.
The American Bar Association Board of Governors is urging jurisdictions to authorize some recent graduates to practice law in a limited way before they get to sit for the bar.
Students including Mr. Bradley and some law schools have advocated for this year’s class to practice with just a law degree and no bar certification. The dean of Drake University’s law school, Jerry Anderson, and the Creighton University law school dean, Joshua P. Fershée, wrote to the Iowa Supreme Court urging such a proposal. Wisconsin has a diploma privilege system that allows many lawyers to practice without taking the bar exam.
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Emily Davis, 25, is graduating from Rutgers Law School this spring and is hoping to take the New York bar exam in September. She said her employer has said it will still take her in the fall, but now she is nervous she won’t be one of the students prioritized for the September exam.
“We don’t know when to start preparing to take it,” she said. “We also have to spend a huge amount of money on bar prep courses. I was planning on starting work in the fall with a good job, being able to pay my student loans. Everything just gets put on pause, but the financial burdens are still there.”
Write to Patrick Thomas at Patrick.Thomas@wsj.com
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