Paul L. Caron

Thursday, April 8, 2021

COVID-19 Blew Up The Bar Exam. Even Bigger Changes Are Coming.

Karen Sloan (National Law Journal), COVID-19 Blew Up the Bar Exam. Even Bigger Changes Are Coming.:

The first indication that COVID-19 would upend the bar exam status quo arrived March 22, 2020, in the form of a working paper penned by 11 legal academics and educational policy experts [The Bar Exam And The COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need For Immediate Action].

The paper argued that it would be unsafe—if not impossible—to administer the upcoming July bar exam in convention halls with hundreds of law graduates packed together. Instead, the academics urged bar exam authorities to rethink the exam and paths to attorney licensure and swiftly announce alternatives.

Their words proved prescient. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the bar exam looks wildly different in most of the country. Examinees log into the exam from their bedrooms, kitchens or wherever they can find some peace and quiet and a strong Internet connection. Facial recognition technology scans their pictures to ensure they are who they claim to be. And their computer cameras and microphones track and record them to ward off cheating.

The sudden shift to online bar exams—more than 30,000 people took the first-ever national remote bar exam in October—is the single biggest shakeup in the history of the attorney licensing test. But it won’t be the last. As bar examiners struggled over the past year to find safe ways to test law graduates, the national organization that designs the test was also finalizing a long-gestating overhaul of the exam’s content and format. If all goes according to plan, the National Conference of Bar Examiners will roll out a vastly different test in 2025 that better integrates the evaluation of legal knowledge with the skills new lawyers need to succeed.

The combination of COVID-19 and the National Conference’s review has placed the bar exam under a microscope like never before. That’s welcome news for legal academics like Joan Howarth, a professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who has spent decades studying the test and pushing for reforms. “I think this is a unique moment for change, different than any I’ve seen since I started thinking and working and writing about bar exam issues in the 1990s,” she said.

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