An Open Letter on the 2020 Bar Exam from Law Deans:
The disruption faced by the law school class of 2020 was significant and will be long lasting. These newest members of the legal profession endured a truncated final semester, a laser fast shift to remote learning, changed grading policies, abrupt moves out of campus housing, and canceled in-person graduation ceremonies. The luckiest among this group had resources, financial, familial, and otherwise to weather this massive disruption and move into the summer prepared to study for the bar exam and start their careers in earnest. Others, however, have dealt with and are still dealing with housing and food insecurity; inadequate access to technology; lost income; anxiety and strain over how to pay their bills; sickness or the threat of serious illness due to underlying health issues (themselves or loved ones) and even the death of loved ones in some cases; and a mounting lack of clarity about whether and when a bar exam would be available for them to take.
Now, those we are welcoming into our profession are dealing with an increasingly absurd set of decisions about the bar exam. Despite surges in COVID-19 cases in several parts of the country, about 20 states currently plan to hold in person bar exams, creating potential public health calamities for bar takers, proctors, and the friends, family, and strangers that all of these people will come into contact with when the bar ends. A small number of states have already indicated that they will give a remote bar exam in October, a choice replete with its own significant drawbacks and complications, while others remain silent on how things will proceed.
In the midst of all of this uncertainty, thousands of law school graduates who hope to soon become lawyers are trying to make plans, care for families, pay their rent, and study for a bar exam to be offered on some future date perhaps under conditions that could result in contracting a deadly virus. As is always the case, it is the most vulnerable among our recent grads who bear the worst of this uncertainty — those who carefully budgeted to be able to study for the bar exam in July are now scrambling to find an income source to tide them over until October or later. Often, this same group, many first-generation college or law school grads from lower income or poor backgrounds, took out enormous debt hoping that a legal education would alter their life circumstances. For them, a “mere” two month-delay, not to mention any period longer than that, could lead to financial ruin. The caregivers whose ability to study was hampered by their school-aged children who were not in school or camp for months and may remain out of school through the fall. Those with unstable wi-fi signals who planned to take live bar classes and found all of those classes moved online. Those whose job offers hinged on the ability to take an exam in July and/or becoming licensed to practice law in the fall.
The bar exam is touted as a necessary measure to protect the public from lawyers who would provide incompetent representation to members of the public, thereby harming their interests. But the success that Wisconsin has had with diploma privilege provides reliable, longitudinal data that demonstrates that legal education without high stakes examination can protect the public from harm. Members of the public in Wisconsin do not suffer harm from lawyer incompetence at a rate higher than jurisdictions that administer a bar examination.
Far too often, the bar exam measures privilege and opportunity, rather than competency to practice law. This privilege includes being able to study for months without the necessity to work; being able to pay thousands of dollars for a commercial bar preparation course; and being able to have a safe and comfortable place to study day-after-day without the disruption of caregiving responsibilities. The conditions under which graduates are now trying to persevere guarantees that existing inequalities — built in large part on race, class, disability status, and gender — will be exacerbated.
Add to that storm an environment that even those of us who are Black law school deans, placing us among the most privileged of our racial group in terms of education and income, are struggling to focus and concentrate on the countless tasks and demands in front of us in our jobs. Of course, racial discrimination, police brutality and violence, and the devaluation of Black life are not news to us, or to many Black students, but the constant visual reminder of how little our lives are valued in this society and how much the law enables our lives to be devalued by deadly as well as non-lethal violence, layered on top of a pandemic that has devastated many Black families, take a huge toll on the body and the spirit. Couple that with the sudden awakenings of our non-Black colleagues, peers, and acquaintances to the reality of the racism in our lives, which in itself is painful, and it is not hard to understand why any Black law graduate would be particularly disadvantaged with bar preparation this summer and fall of 2020.
Furthermore, the history of bar exams is one replete with examples of discrimination and anti-Black racism. The use of bar exams to exclude people from the practice of law coincided with periods of heightened immigration and with the success of Black people joining the legal profession. Even today, the bar exam disproportionately excludes people of color from the legal profession. As members of this profession, we are disturbed by the history of the bar exam and the current work of racial exclusion that it performs in the best of times. We write this letter to call to the attention of the high Courts that govern the profession in each jurisdiction, the possible outcome that strict adherence to the bar exam will achieve. It will likely frustrate the entry of people of color and impoverished people from every demographic from the legal profession. Propping up a tool born from a racist past will not only impose a predictably disparate impact on people of color and impoverished people; it also seems both unnecessary and cruel.
When the dust has settled on this incredibly difficult season, we hope that the conversations about better ways to license attorneys that have been taking place for many years will be had with greater urgency. But, in the meantime, some form of diploma privilege that allows new lawyers to have a sense of certainty and a solid ground to stand on is the most compassionate choice for high Courts and bar examiners to make. This is especially so because the results of any exam given this year cannot help but be wildly skewed and unreliable given race, class, and gender-based inequalities in the ability to prepare for and take the test. To be clear, diploma privilege can and should still require a character and fitness review and might also include enhanced CLE requirements, supervision requirements, and other measures to support our new colleagues and the public we all serve.
As deans leading law schools through this global pandemic and into a new future for legal education, we are committed to reimagining a legal profession that more closely resembles the diversity of our country. The path to that future does not end with diploma privilege for the class of 2020, but such an equitable privilege for all is a good start.
Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean, Duke University School of Law
S. James Anaya, Dean and University Distinguished Professor, University of Colorado Law School
Horace Anderson, Dean and Professor of Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University
Luke Bierman, Dean and Professor of Law, Elon University School of Law
Mary Lu Bilek, Dean and Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law
Michael T. Cahill, President, Joseph Crea Dean & Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School
Paul L. Caron, Duane and Kelly Roberts Dean & Professor of Law, Pepperdine Caruso School of Law
Annette E. Clark, M.D., J.D., Dean and Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law
Danielle Conway, Dean & Donald J. Farage Professor of Law, Penn State Dickinson Law*
Phyllis L Crocker, Dean and Professor of Law, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law
Brian, Gallini, Dean & Professor of Law, Willamette University College of Law
Danielle Holley-Walker, Dean & Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law*
Melanie B. Jacobs, Interim Dean & Professor of Law, Michigan State University College of Law
William P. Johnson, Dean and Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law
Melanie Leslie, Dean and Samuel Belkin Professor of Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
David Lopez, Co-dean and Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
James McGrath, Professor of Law, President & Dean, Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School
Jennifer L. Mnookin, Dean and Ralph and Shirley Shapiro Professor of Law, UCLA Law
Kimberly Mutcherson, Co-dean and Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School*
Anthony Niedwiecki, President and Dean, Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Dean and Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law*
Hari M. Osofsky, Dean & Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs
John Pierre, Chancellor, Southern University Law Center
Carla Pratt, Dean & Professor of Law, Washburn University School of Law*
L. Song Richardson, Dean & Chancellor’s Professor of Law, UCI Law
Katharine Traylor Schaffzin, Dean & Professor of Law, The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law
Sudha Setty, Dean, Western New England University School of Law
Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Dean, S.J. Quinney College of Law University of Utah
*Co-founder of the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project
- ABA, Resolution
- Above the Law, More High-Profile Support For Diploma Privilege
- Bloomberg Law, D.C. Weighs Alternative Licensing for Law School Grads
- Connecticut Law Tribune, Connecticut Law School Deans Call for Waiving 2020 Bar Exam
- Gotham Gazette, Diploma Privilege Now
- Law360, Pa. Bar Association Board Recommends Diploma Privilege
- Law.com, ABA Resolution Calls on States to Pull The Plug on In-Person Bar Exams Amid Pandemic
- Legal Intelligencer, Passing the Bar Exam May Not Be Required for New Pa. Lawyers
- Nonprofit Quarterly, Law Students Call on States to Suspend the Bar—for Equity and Public Health
- Rutgers, Law School Faculty Ask for Emergency Diploma Privilege
- Ilya Somin (George Mason), The Case for Replacing the Bar Exam With "Diploma Privilege"