The Illinois bar exam has not yet been changed due to coronavirus restrictions. But state legal administrators are “closely monitoring developments” and considering alternatives to the in-person lawyer licensing test slated for the summer.
The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar said this week it hasn’t changed the date of the July 28-29 exam, nor the format. But all contingency plans are on the table.
“At this moment, the July exam will be conducted as scheduled,” said Nancy Vincent, director of administration for the board, in an email Wednesday.
“We are working closely with NCBE [the National Conference of Bar Examiners] and the other jurisdictions in order to assess the matter. We are considering all options, however, and no time line is in place for a decision. As you can imagine, this is a fluid situation.”
A spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court noted this morning that the statewide bar admission ceremonies slated for May 7 will now be held through live video conference. The court announced the standard swearing-ins across each of the five judicial districts will be condensed into one with Chief Justice Anne M. Burke hosting.
Court spokesman Chris Bonjean said in an email the ceremony has been his focus to this point, but added the board of admissions is monitoring things closely in regards to the exam.
Vincent also said the group is aware of ideas to alter exam requirements that were published in a working paper this week by a group of legal scholars who have studied licensing issues.
They proposed granting diploma privilege (allowing new lawyers to practice in the same location they graduated law school without taking a standardized test); granting a more restrictive form of privilege that includes online courses or externships, and allowing new lawyers to practice under close supervision of licensed attorneys.
The paper, signed by 11 scholars and published as part of a series from The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, also considered three other options: postponing the test, moving it completely online or administering it only to small groups. However, those “appear likely to fail” while “each of the other three offers considerable promise,” the researchers wrote.
Titled “The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action,” the nine-page document highlights why it’s crucial to maintain the flow of new lawyers in normal times, but especially so as the pandemic creates a surge of legal issues in healthcare, civil rights, employment and government assistance.
“Each year, more than 24,000 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools begin jobs that require bar admission. The legal system depends on this yearly influx to maintain client service,” the researchers wrote. “The COVID-19 crisis, moreover, will dramatically increase the need for legal services, especially among those who can least afford those services. We cannot reduce entry to the profession at a time when client demand will be at an all-time high.”
A postponement would still be subject to plenty of uncertainty, the paper states, and pandemics, like the Spanish Flu in 1918, can come in waves. Migrating the test online is a logistical and an access problem, and poses questions about security and integrity. It would also be difficult to make a blanket rule about administering the test in small groups if health restrictions still vary by jurisdiction, and there may be a shortage of proctors.
On the other hand, diploma privilege is already used in the state of Wisconsin, and adding externship or CLE requirements to such an emergency move, and limiting it solely to 2020 law school graduates wouldn’t be insurmountable, the researchers wrote.
“This option is straightforward and easy to administer; based on Wisconsin’s experience, risks to the public are minimal. It would also be the most efficient way to get teams of licensed new lawyers on the front lines to help meet the legal challenges faced by our society as we first wage war to combat the virus and then rebuild profoundly damaged economic, social, and legal systems,” the paper states.
And like Illinois’ use of the 7/11 license, “[m]any jurisdictions issue student licenses that allow advanced law students to practice under a licensed lawyer’s close supervision.”
Melissa Hale, director of academic success and bar programs at Loyola University School of Law, said students at that institution and all over are wondering what will happen.
“I’ve been telling them that as soon as I hear anything, they will hear something. I’ve also been telling them to prepare as usual, until we hear something certain from the [b]oard,” she said in an email.