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Preparing for the bar exam and practice during a pandemic

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Bar Exam
This isn’t an exaggeration: You are guardians of our democracy. Take that responsibility seriously. (Getty Images)

I’m writing this piece in June 2020 knowing you’ll read it in September 2020.

In any other year, 2020 law school graduates would have taken the July bar exam and would now be working or looking for law jobs while awaiting bar exam results. But this is no ordinary year. The events of this spring and summer have disrupted nearly everything that seemed routine just months ago.

Little is normal today

In most of the last 50 years or more, law school graduates would typically have just emerged from three years of classes with in-person Socratic-style teaching and intimidating profs (think Legally Blond or The Paper Chase); two months of intensive bar prep; and taking a multiday paper exam along with hundreds—if not thousands—of other applicants.

Not so now. Most 2020 grads finished law school online with pass/fail courses. Some were learning in cyberspace from relatively comfortable living spaces, but many struggled in crammed, makeshift, and challenging quarantines with family or roommates.

All were largely confined for months before having to hunker down for official bar prep. Many were caring for sick relatives or fell ill themselves. Most, if not all, were afraid of getting sick, with little clear or consistent advice being given— or being followed—on how to prevent that.

Not long into the pandemic, the economic fallout hit, with many 2020 grads losing jobs and job offers.

Friends and relatives were facing similar predicaments.

Black and Latinx communities continue to be much harder hit than others, bringing us all face to face with deeply rooted societal inequities. The brutal death of George Floyd in late May sparked a collective consciousness about systemic racism and police violence.

People of all ages poured into the streets to protest, and 24/7 social and other media captured it all in moment-by- moment coverage.

Grads of 2020 were, and will likely continue to be, on unfathomable overload while preparing for what also became unprecedented disruption in professional licensing paths.

Exam, interrupted

Traditional bar exams are days-long, large gatherings that pose threats of virus transmission at a seemingly endless array of touchpoints, including:

  • Waiting in lines to get into facilities
  • Getting close enough to proctors to have identifications checked
  • Breathing the air of applicants seated nearby, not to mention breathing recirculated air for hours on end in exam halls
  • Using bathrooms and food services during breaks
  • Sleeping in nearby hotels
  • Touching paper exam materials, desks, doors, and other surfaces

In response to health risks, some examiners created licensing alternatives or alternative bar exams. From this June vantage point, I can’t be sure, but I suspect that, given what courts and bar examiners have announced thus far, some grads will have taken the bar in July under socially distanced circumstances.

Other grads will have taken the first-ever online bar exams, while others will be taking the bar at the beginning or end of September or in October. Some will have been granted a diploma privilege. Others will be working for attorneys in supervised practice— in Utah, for example—in lieu of the bar exam and in other jurisdictions temporarily until they can safely take and pass a bar exam.

With all that, let me say as clearly as possible that we in the profession and the academy hear you; we see your suffering. We are with you.

So what can I possibly say of relevance to all of you when you’re each so differently situated? Let’s consider a few important points.

Lawyers are essential

First, you’re joining a critically important profession. People make lawyer jokes until they need us. Don’t let anyone diminish our profession and the limitless potential of this law license you’ll have sweated for, indeed that some of you will have risked your life for. The law is essential, the legal profession is essential, and you as future lawyers are essential.

Health care workers were and remain critical essential workers on the front lines fighting this pandemic; they’ll remain indispensable as the virus runs its course. So, too, will lawyers be essential—especially in the ensuing waves and the aftermath and rebuilding while in the volatile wakes of simultaneous crises.

Here are just a few examples of the essential work of lawyers during the pandemic:

  • Lawyers will continue to help individuals obtain access to unemployment and disability benefits, prevent evictions, and obtain other government assistance.
  • Legal advice will be needed to assist people and businesses with bankruptcy, business closures, liability concerns connected with business reopenings, insurance claims and disputes, civil rights, and estate planning.
  • The pandemic is raising grave issues related to the criminal justice system, including prisoner health care and speedy-trial rights; lawyers are needed to address these serious concerns.

Newly licensed lawyers, in particular, play a critically important role in serving low- and moderate-income clients.

New lawyers will fill critically needed positions in public defenders’ and prosecutors’ offices.

Put as succinctly and clearly as possible, you are essential workers because you are the future of our democracy.

“Liberty and justice for all” demands dutiful, legally educated, ethical individuals to fight for justice and uphold the rule of law.

You have one job now

Second, if you haven’t taken the bar exam yet and will have to do so this month or next month, think about this statement from an ABA Journal article in June, “Your job is to stay healthy and get licensed.”

Repeat this to yourself every day: “I will stay healthy and get licensed.”

You must stay strong. Whatever form the exam you sit for takes, the underlying skills remain largely the same: critical reading, logical analysis, understanding rules of law, logically analyzing fact patterns and applying rules to the facts presented, and writing clearly and effectively.

Yes, you’ll need to understand rules of law and memorize them, but beyond memorization, the skills I just noted are also transferable skills. Master them.

Use this time to up your game in critical reading, analytical skills, and the art of clear expression in written word.

They’ll help you just as much in practice, if not more, than on the bar exam. And despite the chaos and uncertainty you’re facing, immerse yourself as much as possible now in your studies and skill development. You’ll need those skills for the remainder of your career.

If you haven’t read the findings in the Foundations for Practice research from the nonprofit Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, I recommend a quick look now and a longer look when you finish your bar exam.

The study considers what more than 24,000 lawyers across the 50 states believe makes a new lawyer successful and provides powerful evidence of how you should prepare for your own successful future.

One more thing if you haven’t yet taken a bar exam and will be required to: Stay as flexible as possible in case conditions change again. Among your challenges is the need to stay informed enough to know what you’ll be facing but not let yourself become dragged down into non-exam information overload.

A tip is to read anything from your jurisdiction’s bar examiners and anything from your law school’s ASP/Bar Success departments but to limit the rest of your social media and other communications, where rumors often spread and panic prevails.

Survival offers its own lessons

Third, know that you’ll have learned lessons and developed resiliency from just surviving this spring and summer.

You’ll thus have marketable grit-related skills and an empowering “story” to tell employers. In an April blog post I co-authored with Professor Neil Hamilton, we suggested a number of questions to ask yourself to prepare for future jobs, including:

  • What did I learn that would be useful to an employer?
  • Did I learn to figure out solutions to myriad unanticipated changes and challenges?
  • What specific changes did I make to adapt to certain struggles?

Your answers might be specific examples of grit, resiliency, and positive or growth mindset that helped you through these tough times. Your answers also provide powerful evidence—proof, if you will—to employers that you’ll demonstrate similar resilience as a legal professional, that you’ll fight for your clients as you did for yourself and your family.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Neil Hamilton’s Roadmap: The Law Student’s Guide to Meaningful Employment, Second Edition, which includes many important strategies to help pave the way toward developing rewarding future employment opportunities.

Bottom line, above all else, it that it’s critically important for law students and law grads alike to stay healthy—mentally and physically— and to surround yourselves as much as possible with positive, supportive people, appropriately socially distanced and through virtual communication, of course.

For decades, I told my own students and those reading my books: “Legal Education is a power tool for social change.”

That power tool is yours. Use it proudly, and use it well. You’re the guardians of our future democracy.

Sara J. Berman Sara J. Berman is a legal education thought leader specializing in student success, teaching and learning, and bar exams. Her most recent book, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, was published in 2019. After decades in faculty and law school leadership positions, Berman is now leading student success research initiatives at the nonprofit AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. The views expressed in this article are Berman’s own.