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Why a delayed bar exam is a financial and legal disaster


These concerns are the observations of what many law students across the country are facing and why a delayed bar exam is terrible for several graduates. 

First and foremost, several states continue to face issues concerning access to justice, and each jurisdiction relies on an influx of attorneys being admitted to the practice each fall.  The aftermath of COVID-19 is unpredictable, but it is certain to come with several challenges and a vast amount of legal work needing done.  Therefore, it is critical to license as many additional attorneys as possible in the coming months.  If the July bar exam is not given, postponing would be detrimental to the Class of 2020, the legal profession, and the public.

Students who are fortunate enough to have full-time jobs lined up will likely not start work, or will be paid significantly less, until able to take and pass the bar exam.  For law school graduates, there is the possibility, and fear, of not passing on the first try—while employers hire those who they believe will be successful on the July exam and be sworn in as licensed attorneys.

Most employers pay not even half of the promised salary until graduates have passed the bar.  A later exam would delay this increased pay for several months and could put students in very difficult financial situations, especially those with enormous amounts of student debt.  There is no guarantee employers would even allow graduates to work at a reduced salary until the bar exam is given.

This study demand cannot be met if graduates are working full-time while prepping for the bar. 

A delayed bar exam would also mean a longer wait to acquire jobs for those who do not yet have jobs lined up.  Many employers slow hiring as the bar exam approaches because they do not want to commit to bringing on an employee who they require pass the bar, only for the new employee to not pass the exam shortly after hiring.  This would cause the delay in hiring to go far into the fall, if not the new year, and leave graduates without paychecks for a number of months. 

Bar prep study systems will be turned upside down and likely decrease bar pass rates.  These courses are designed so that students who start studying on schedule will be at their peak of learning come the last week of July.  If students were to halt the suggested studying for months to go to work, then go back to studying intensely to prepare for a delayed bar, there is no telling how this would affect pass rates. 

That leads to another question: Will employers who allow graduates to work full-time for a short period before studying for a delayed exam continue to pay these graduates during their three months away from the office to study?  Likely not. 

Typically, graduates go directly from graduation to studying for three months, completing the bar exam, and beginning work in late August/early September.  Aside from stipends provided to some, employers do not pay graduates while they are studying in the summer because the graduates are not technically employed yet.  However, if employers allow graduates to work between graduation and the delayed bar exam, graduates could face significant financial struggles during their three months without a paycheck. 

Worse, the graduates continue working full-time while they are studying and are unable to successfully pass the exam because of unprecedented circumstances and the demand of a full-time job while studying for the bar.  It’s important to remember that bar exam prep is treated as a full-time job itself, and statistically, it is recommended that test takers study at least 600 hours in order to pass on the first attempt.  This study demand cannot be met if graduates are working full-time while prepping for the bar. 

Temporary diploma privilege—allowing graduates to work as licensed attorneys until a certain date where they then after have to take and pass the bar exam—would be burdensome for those becoming solo practitioners upon graduation.  An attorney cannot ask that their clients “sit tight” for three months while they study for and take the bar. 

In addition, those who do not pass the bar on their first attempt in July typically begin studying again in late October or early November.  If a fall exam were given, receiving scores would be delayed, and those needing to repeat the exam would lose study time and be put at a greater risk of failing a second time during the February 2021 bar. 

This would be detrimental to all graduates, especially those whose employment will be revoked after two failed attempts.  If graduates were given one year of diploma privilege and required to take the bar in July 2021, would law firms count the unlicensed year of work toward these graduates being considered for partner in the coming years?  Likely not. 

It should also be noted that during the current time, students are being forced to rely solely on the internet in order to learn and prepare for the exam.  However, coffee shops and libraries are not open for students to study at, and some of these students do not have internet connection in their homes because of the high costs.  This presents a major divide as to who may be able to adequately prepare for and pass the exam.  Several of us with internet have spent the recent weeks studying from our homes, but those who rely on their law school’s internet connection have not been able to do a moment of bar prep since the schools closed their doors. 

The number of hypotheticals—and, frankly bizarre—situations that soon-to-be graduates are facing cannot be explained in this note.  I realize it is easy to believe that “those students just don’t want to take the test.”  I thought the same thing three weeks ago.  Now, hearing the conversations among my classmates and students at several law schools has changed my opinion and made me realize that a delayed bar exam is a financial and legal disaster. 

Julie Merow Julie Merow is a third-year student at the West Virginia University College of Law. She currently serves as the Delegate of Communications, Publications, and Outreach for the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division Council and a Delegate to the ABA House of Delegates. Julie will graduate in May and pursue a career in civil defense litigation and transactional law.