By- Ritul Tyagi
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, several states have afforded recent law school graduates diploma privilege, allowing them to practice law without taking the bar exam. On April 7 the deans of 12 Florida law schools sent a letter to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners providing them with several alternatives to an in-person exam. These alternatives included additional testing sites to allow for social distancing, another testing date in September, allowing test takers to take the bar in parts, elongated certified legal intern status, or admission to the bar without taking the exam. However, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has yet to adopt any of these alternative measures.
The Raul Ruiz, assistant dean of bar preparation at Florida International University College of Law, has been fielding frantic messages from graduates who had planned to sit for the state’s July exam. They want to know if amid Florida’s spike in COVID-19 infections, the test will be canceled or whether they should not take it because of the health risks. One of two locations administering the bar exam is also a drive-through COVID-19 testing site.
“It’s a stress level I’ve never seen before,” said Ruiz, who has advised law grads on the bar exam for more than a decade. Florida in June has seen a surge in COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 122,000 people across the United States, with new cases in the state rising 87% last week. Florida bar candidates said they’re trapped in an impossible decision: take the test now and risk contracting a disease that could kill them or their family, or take it later and postpone starting law jobs needed to pay student loans and health insurance.
More than 600 people have signed a petition urging the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to “consider all other alternative measures,” including offering an online test or granting the so-called “diploma privilege,” which lets grads skip the test and still become licensed.
David Reeves, chair of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, said the exam will be canceled if health officials say it’s necessary. For now, applicants with health concerns can submit a request for accommodations to the board, he said. Applicants will be spaced out and required to wear masks, among other precautions. The board is aware of all of the concerns and doing all possible work for people.
Florida is just one of the jurisdictions nationwide grappling with how to handlebar exams amid the pandemic. In Texas, which has also seen a surge of COVID-19 cases, applicants are also pushing for alternatives to an in-person July exam. Washington and Utah are granting diploma privilege. Washington D.C. is moving its test online. New York and Illinois have pushed their in-person July test to September. And bar candidates or law employers have found frustrations in all of these solutions.
Florida’s bar exam is usually held in one location, the Tampa Convention Center, and students from across the state travel to take it there.
But because of the pandemic, the test given on July 28-29 will be administered at two locations, Tampa and in Orlando at the Orange County Convention Center. The Orlando location is also a drive-through COVID-19 testing site. The Orange County Convention Center’s website says it expects 2,200 attendees to show up for the test. Florida’s board of examiners has hesitated to push the July test to September in part because that is hurricane season, Reeves said.