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The weight of 2020: Black law grads are ‘exhausted’ and ‘anxious’

Black Woman Deep in Thought

During the summer of 2020, I was lucky enough to weather the onset of the pandemic relatively smoothly, juggling a busy 1 year old and working (remotely) with students who were studying for the bar. Some of these students I’d been lucky enough to know since their 1L Orientation in 2017 (which was also my first orientation as an assistant professor).

One of the best parts of my job as a professor in our Academic Support Program is that, partially because I don’t grade students during their 1L year, I find they can often be honest with me. They tell me they are worried everyone else understands law school better than they do, and they open up about things like ill family members, challenging commutes, unexpected medical issues, and feeling uncomfortable in the classroom. I greatly value these relationships.

During the Summer of 2020, in an attempt to stay informed about what was going on with my beloved students and other recent graduates around the country—and because I’m nosy—I followed numerous accounts on Twitter like @BarExamTracker who were seeking to spread information about the particularly stressful and unpredictable world of the bar exam mid-pandemic.

What I read there, and what I heard from my own students, disturbed me. Bar studiers who had hoped to spend the summer in the library were instead stuck at home with multiple generations of family members making noise and unreliable Wi-Fi interrupting lectures. Graduates hoping to swiftly start careers as attorneys instead faced cancelled interviews and delayed first paychecks. And for Black law school graduates, there were additional, devastating stressors as the country faced a swell of anti-Black police brutality, and protestors took to the streets.

“I was exhausted. It’s exhausting to think back on. As a Black woman I had to fight to stay alive from a virus and police brutality. It affected me emotionally and I did not have the bandwidth to continue to study for the exam.”

In an urge to learn more about the challenges facing Black law school graduates and to record their stories, I quickly assembled and sent out an eight-question survey to schools and bar associations around the country. The survey focused on the impact of the COVID pandemic and anti-Black violence on the graduates’ experience studying for the bar exam. The survey also asked whether the bar exam they had planned on sitting for was postponed and whether it was given online, and whether either/both of those impacted their test taking experience.

Over 121 Black law students, from around the country, who graduated in 2020 responded to the survey.

An article summarizing the survey responses will be published this summer/fall by the Nebraska Law Review, including an Appendix that contains the complete (anonymized) responses of the graduates. Again and again, graduates expressed how “exhausted” and “anxious” they were and how difficult it was to focus on studying for the bar:

“This year I was more anxious than I had ever been. It was extremely hard to stay focused for more than a day or two at a time without feeling completely drained by everything happening outside of studying.”

It was not only that the pandemic was creating fear and stress, or that police brutality was in the news nightly—it was also that the disparate impact of both these issues on Black communities stood in stark contrast to the bar exam:

“It was extremely difficult to focus on something as abstract and that solely serves a racist, classist, gate keeping function as the bar exam in the midst of so much Black death and resulting protests. I wanted to be in the streets and felt I could not be due to the bar, but felt very guilty not to be there which did not help my focus.

“How are Black law students supposed to focus when we see people that look like us are being gunned down for being Black? …How are we supposed to study for the biggest exam of our lives while processing this racial injustice by the police and our political leaders? How can we try to remember all of the intricate nuances of the law when the very same law does not afford us equal protection and full citizenship? I don’t understand how we are supposed to do well when emotionally, spiritually, and for some of us, physically, we are struggling with accepting substandard citizenship.

“It made it extremely hard to focus. I was constantly asking myself why I was studying for an exam meant to keep people like me out of the profession when people needed me on the ground. How am I supposed to care about the Rule Against Perpetuities when I am literally fighting against a system of racism daily by just being. My body is a threat and I can’t change that by simply passing the bar exam or by staying in my house and studying for it. It felt like a waste and impossible to do for a few days.”

While some respondents said they were unaffected by the political climate of the country, the vast majority stated that both the pandemic and the racism of the United States impacted their ability to focus on and sit for the bar. After postponed and canceled bar exams, family tragedies, and a depletion of any saved money, some simply decided not to sit for the bar. Some graduates were left wondering if they wanted to be a part of the profession at all.

“As a black woman that comes from a mostly male family, I came into this profession because I knew that the system was broken when it comes to us (black people). During this summer, I completely lost faith in this system. I still have no faith. Perhaps the most difficult part about bar prep was learning law that I knew didn’t apply to my people in real life. Every incident of police brutality reminded me that the things I was learning in my bar prep course, didn’t apply to us. During my entire bar prep I constantly battled with whether or not I still wanted to be part of this profession or the ‘legal system’.”

If we want to move forward as a profession, we must listen to these experiences of these graduates and make sure the experiences they had—and the changes they demand—are not forgotten.

More information on the survey and the experiences of black law graduates with the bar exam can be found in this article on Bloomberg Law.

Sarah Schendel Sarah Schendel is an Assistant Professor of Academic Support at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Mass. (the best job in the world). When she isn’t giving pep talks and exam tips to her incredible students, she stays busy reading detective novels and hanging out with her energetic toddler and sci-fi writing husband.