Bar exam postponed amid pandemic, prolonging uncertainty for aspiring lawyers

Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court announced last week that the Ohio Bar Examination — the compulsory test to be licensed to practice law — will be postponed until early October and will be conducted online. 

The exam, which was taken by nearly 900 aspiring lawyers last summer, was originally scheduled for July 28-29, but was postponed to Sept. 9-10 amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The safety of the exam takers and the staff who administer the exam is our top priority, and that’s why the Court felt compelled to make this change,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in a press release. 

Ohio is one of 14 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands to postpone the exam until Oct. 5-6. Seventeen states will hold the exam on the originally scheduled dates, July 28-29, either remotely or in-person. Ohio’s online bar exam will be half the length and content of previous years’ tests. 

2020 marked the first year Ohio adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) — a version of the test, in which the scores are transferable to the over 30 jurisdictions that recognize the UBE, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. However, because of the pandemic, test takers will be administered a non-UBE test. 

“At this point, our exam is half the length, it’s online, we might not even have the normal resources we should have, so at this point it doesn’t feel like we’re testing competency,” Katie Harris, a 2020 graduate of Capital University’s Law School, said. “It feels like we’re doing it because everyone else had to do it, and it feels like hazing.” 

Harris advocated Ohio employ diploma privilege, a system in which students who graduate from an accredited law school are automatically barred. Oregon approved diploma privilege in June after concerns about the health risks associated with in-person testing mounted. Washington, Louisiana and Utah currently permit diploma privilege. 

“We’ve had to put our entire careers on hold. The reason is not anyone’s fault, but it seems like there’s not much consideration for how that’s actually affecting us,” Harris said.  

Ohio took unprecedented action in May, allowing recent law school graduates to apply for a temporary license to practice law under supervision before passing the bar. The temporary license lets soon-to-be lawyers enter appearances, draft legal documents and pleadings, and provide legal services and counsel to clients. 

Those licenses have been extended until the Oct. 5-6 testing dates, or until the regularly-scheduled dates in February for those who opt-out of the October tests.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I think the bigger challenge is doing this in the conditions that the world is currently in and having all that stress on top of it,” Evan Poole, a 2020 graduate of The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said. 

On top of interrupted studying regimens — which students’ are recommended to start up to 11 weeks before the exam — and the unknowns of online testing, Poole said law firms are rescinding job offers to candidates unable to take the bar before their contracted start date, while others are being called into work whilst studying for the exam. 

Confounding these logistical problems is the emotional toll of a global pandemic, Poole — whose grandmother recently died of COVID-19 — said. 

“It’s really thrown a wrench into everything,” he said. “Everyone is just going day-to-day. The increased anxiety from not having any plans and no one knows what’s happening also is a major factor.”