Originally published March 25, 2020, updated March 28, 2020. We'll continue to make updates as more information on the coronavirus and the July 2020 Uniform Bar Exam comes in.
As the country attempts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the National Conference of Examiners (NCBE) announced its plans to offer the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) on July 28-29, as well a completely separate UBE on a date to be decided this fall.
New York is the first state to decide against administering the exam in July and will instead offer the exam at the later date this fall. Other states will surely follow.
Like the rest of us, the NCBE is closely watching the spread of the coronavirus to see whether conditions improve to the point that it will be safe to administer the exam to tens of thousands of applicants.
They’re holding out for the possibility that life will be back to normal by then, and the test can proceed as planned. The exam itself is actually administered by individual states’ boards of law examiners (like the New York State Board of Law Examiners, the New Jersey Bar Examiners, and the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee), so the decision to administer the test will depend on the status of the virus in the individual jurisdictions.
New York's Court of Appeals has already decided against administering the test in July.
July 2020 UBE Possibilities
No one knows what will happen between now and July, but the NCBE says, in an update posted March 26, that it believes in "a coordinated response among jurisdictions" and will decide how and whether to administer the exam by May 5.
Here are six possibilities:
1. States decide to proceed as planned with the July exam.
Let’s hope this is what happens. Social Distancing is still relatively new to most of the country, and we’re all hopeful that by July, we’ll be able to gather with our friends, families, and even other bar exam applicants.
2. States delay the bar exam to the fall.
As mentioned above, New York has already announced a postponement.
The NCBE is already planning ahead for other jurisdictions to follow. If the number of new coronavirus cases is declining and public health officials believe it would be safer to administer the exam at a later date (e.g. August or September), it would seem logical that the bar exam would be postponed and subject to later cancellation if the conditions unexpectedly worsen.
The NCBE has promised a decision on whether to completely postpone the July 2020 exam should be available by May 5. Its decision "will depend on jurisdiction decisions about administration as well as the status on May 5 of federal, state, and local health orders for isolation/distancing."
For anyone currently in law school, you'll have more information well before you graduate. The NCBE pointed out that a later exam would, of course, "delay admission, but only by about two months, which examinees should find preferable to waiting until February 2021."
Henry M. Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, has echoed the need for a for a plan, recognizing that "graduating law school students are understandably anxious to take their place in this profession and need to know when and how best to prepare for the bar exam."
The New York State Bar Association’s (NYSBA) Task Force on the New York State Bar Examination, chaired by Alan Scheinkman, the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, has been convened on an emergency basis and will guide the NYSBA in making its determination by May 5.
3. States administer a bar exam in July and again in the fall.
The NCBE will have distinct exams ready for states to administer in July 2020, in the fall of 2020, and again in February 2021.
4. States cancel both the July and fall administrations of the bar exam.
Like a decision to delay the exam, any decision not to hold the bar exam in July or the fall would be based on public health officials’ determination of the containment of the virus or lack thereof. If officials believe that the virus will pose a serious threat through the fall, the prudent decision would be to cancel the July 2020 exam and have candidates sit for a subsequent administration.
5. States administer the bar exam remotely.
The past few weeks have surprised many of us. We realize that what we thought was impossible is now possible. But at this point, we should all be able to say that there are three things certain in life: Death, taxes, and that the July 2020 Bar Exam will not be taken on your laptop without a proctor.
6. States decide to give licenses to everyone who graduated from law school in December 2019 or May 2020 (including students who livestream soccer games in every class you've ever taken with them).
While this would be any 3L's dream (we can't blame you; 12 weeks of preparing for the bar exam is no picnic), this seems less probable than having the bar exam conducted remotely without a proctor.
That said, all options are on the table, and this solution was proposed by 11 academics citing a "need to preserve the mental health of the candidates hoping to join our profession this year" and a "need for new lawyers." While both goals are commendable, the proposal's main shortcomings are:
A) It abandons the bar exam's goal of ensuring that law school graduates have minimum competency to practice law. While there will always be an argument that there are better ways to measure minimum competence than the bar exam, let's face it, there has to be some device in place to make sure that law school graduates can write, solve problems, and have some level of competence. This proposal means that the guy who streams soccer games in class or those students that you suspect may have violated your school's academic code of conduct in rescheduling an exam would get the most prestigious of professional licenses without ever being tested by an institution other than your law school. The New York State Bar Association knows that.
B) Any need for new lawyers could be met without eliminating the bar exam. In a recent statement, NCBE President Judith Gundersen suggested that broadening student practice rules could help provide essential legal services on a temporary basis, but the experience they gain through supervised practice would not necessarily qualify someone for licensure. The NYSBA task force (and other state bar associations) will likely question the need to eliminate the examination requirement. The idea, instead, would be to let law school graduates help where they are needed and supervised, have them sit for the bar exam when it is safe to do so, and avoid eliminating the objective criteria in place for admission to the bar (which include passage of the bar exam).
As Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education for the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, stated, "The council’s position is that bar admission should require both an ABA-approved law school J.D. degree and the passage of a bar exam. Any changes in or accommodations to the bar admissions process, even in the context of an emergency or a disaster, therefore, should be made thoughtfully and with consideration of both long-term and immediate concerns."
How should You Prepare for the July 2020 UBE?
While many 3Ls may be taking law school classes that introduce you to the various components of the exam, almost all bar applicants begin their most serious preparation for the exam about 11 or 12 weeks before the test when they start their bar review course (i.e. mid to late May).
That's beyond the May 5 timeline, so by then you (and public health officials) will have a clearer understanding of the threats posed by administering the bar exam in late July. Decision-makers will be very cautious and will hopefully provide you with guidance before you begin studying in earnest.
But in the event there is a delay in the decision-making process or there is a change in circumstances developing in the weeks immediately before the exam, you need to prepare as if the exam is happening.
The only part of the process that you can control is your preparation, so do make sure that if the exam is given, you pass on the first try.
Where to Get Information specific to the July 2020 Bar Exam
What to Do in General
This is the public service part of this post: Stay inside. Listen to the guidance from government officials. Follow recommendations from the CDC.
Not only will it increase the likelihood that you will be able to take the bar exam this summer, but it will keep you away from any of the resources that are needed for people who are sick and their health care providers (Pieper would also like to thank all health professionals fighting the coronavirus, especially the ones in our family).
Be smart, safe, and kind.