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Pandemic Bar Exams Left Many Aspiring Lawyers Behind

Deborah Jones Merritt et al., Pandemic Bar Exams Lef Many Aspiring Lawyers Behind, Bloomberg Law (Jan. 6, 2021) – “A disorganized response by bar examiners to the Covid-19 pandemic disadvantaged many prospective bar exam takers this year, say four members of the Collaboratory on Legal Education and Licensing for Practice. The 2020 process reduced the number of new lawyers, lessened diversity among them, and shows why the profession needs to pay more attention to the licensing process. The July 2020 bar exam resembled a harsh game of musical chairs. Jurisdictions postponed the test, limited seats, switched formats, and announced last-minute changes. Candidates struggled just to stay in the game. Rather than devoting 10 weeks to intensive study, while forgoing income and family time, most of them spent double that time in bar-prep purgatory. In New York and other states, the “July” bar exam didn’t occur until October. For candidates with the resources to wait, the delay paid off: Pass rates rose in many jurisdictions. In New York, the overall pass rate rocketed to 84% on the October exam, which was administered online—compared to just 65% on the July 2019 exam.

But for candidates who lacked those resources, the pass rate was 0%. That is the dark side of this year’s summer/fall bar exam: More than 8,000 qualified candidates never took the exam. The National Conference of Bar Examiners reports that about 38,000 candidates took one of the exams that states offered between July and October 2020. But 46,370 candidates took the July 2019 bar exam. Law schools conferred more JDs in 2020 than 2019. So why did the number of bar takers plunge by almost one-fifth? Some graduates secured licenses through pandemic-based diploma privileges or supervised practice, but those numbers were small. Most of the missing bar takers are qualified candidates who could not overcome the obstacles that the pandemic and bar examiners placed in their way. In New York, the number of first-time takers with JDs from ABA-accredited law schools dropped by more than one quarter, from 5,517 in July 2019 to 4,016 in October 2020. The number of repeaters taking the exam fell even more dramatically, from 2,155 in July 2019 to just 146 in October 2020. Some of those candidates may have taken the exam in other states, hoping to transfer their scores to New York, but the national numbers suggest that most simply opted out of the exam…” [h/t Mary Whisner]

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