Should Law Students Get a Pandemic Pass on This Year’s Bar Exam?

On Monday, June 15, the deans of the respective law schools of the University of Oregon, Lewis & Clark College, and Willamette University asked Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters to waive the July bar exam due to COVID-19 concerns.    

Specifically, the deans requested in a letter to Walters and the Court, “that the Oregon Supreme Court, under its inherent authority to regulate the practice of law, institute a one-time emergency ‘diploma privilege’ to practice in Oregon for any person who timely filed an application for the July Oregon bar exam and is otherwise qualified for admission, notwithstanding the COVID-related space limitations.”   

The Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners opposed this request in May, confident that it would be safe for students to take the exam and citing that Oregon law requires students to pass the bar exam in order to legally practice law.    

The Deans’ Argument   

The deans of U of O, L & C, and Willamette have a couple concerns about the upcoming bar exam. One, they believe that despite the Oregon State Bar’s and the Board of Bar Examiners’ efforts to make the exam safer by instituting multiple examination sites, they are still concerned for students who are planning to take the upcoming bar exam, highlighting that the COVID crisis has accelerated in recent weeks in Oregon, and that the exam may have to be postponed or canceled due to health concerns.    

Two, deans are worried about the financial issues law students currently face and will have to deal with given that the bar exam is postponed or canceled. While under extreme debt due to the high cost of law school, many students will already struggle to compete in the legal workforce. The deans want their students to be able to start work as soon as possible, and if the exam were to be postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis, law students would likely have to wait months or even a year to take the exam and be able to practice law.    

Finally, the U of O, L & C, and Willamette campuses have also all been closed for months due to the pandemic, which poses other problems for law students. While online programs have replaced in-person courses, many students’ educational experiences have still been hampered, leading them to be unprepared for the bar exam, which may not even take place as scheduled in July.    

The Bar’s Response 

  Not only does The Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners believe that the July exam will safely take place, but they also oppose the deans’ request because they think that giving law students a “free pass” would be detrimental to Oregon’s legal system.    

About 400 applicants take the July bar exam in Oregon each year. 75% of these applicants have passed the exam in the past three years, meaning that 100 of these law students do not pass and are unable to practice law. If the Oregon State Bar were to grant the wishes of the deans, about 100 students who would not pass the competency exam would be able to practice law, likely unprepared and uninformed to properly do so.    

The Board of Bar Examiners also highlights that law school graduates have the option to work for lawyers for a year prior to taking the bar exam in a program for “certified law students.”    

The deans refuted this, stating that this option is an “insufficient substitute” for law students.    

Deputy state court administrator says that Chief Justice Walters and the Supreme Court have not yet had the time to consider the deans’ letter.    

By Cara Nixon