This article has been updated with a comment from the Board of Admissions to the Bar.
Mollie McGuire, who graduated from law school in May, was figuring out how to study for the bar exam and find childcare for her 4-year-old son when the Illinois Supreme Court postponed its July exam to September.
McGuire and her husband, who recently moved to Chicago, arranged for family members to help take care of their son, so McGuire could focus on studying.
“Do I really want to put all of this effort into studying for an exam that might kill me?” McGuire said in an interview. “They haven't given us any guidance. I don't know if we're going to be required to wear a mask … I don't know if they’re checking temperatures. I can't perceive a way that it’s going to be safe. So, I don't know if I'm going to be able to take it.”
With the in-person test roughly two months away, the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar and the Illinois Supreme Court have not announced information about safety measures for the exam, taken by an estimated 2,000 people.
In a statement issued Friday through an Illinois Supreme Court spokesman, admissions board executive director Nancy Vincent wrote: “Plans are currently in development and we will comply with all safety guidelines from the CDC and state and local health departments.”
The Illinois Supreme Court announced on May 1 that it would postpone the bar exam from July 28 and 29, to Sept. 9 and 10, citing “ongoing public health concerns related to the outbreak” of COVID-19.
Since the start of the pandemic, health experts have advised against large crowds gathering in indoor spaces for extended periods of time.
The order postponing the exam provided that the rules governing the administration of the bar “are temporarily relaxed … to allow the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar the flexibility to prepare for and administer a bar examination in a manner that maintains the health and well-being of all applicants and others involved with the administration of the bar examination.”
Some states — including Nevada, Michigan and Indiana — are administering an online exam on Oct. 5 and 6, with a limited set of questions and materials provided by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Another suggested alternative to the in-person bar exam is conditional admission for recent law graduates who agree to practice under supervision of a licensed attorney.
In an April 20 letter to Vincent and Chief Justice Anne M. Burke, the deans of Illinois’ nine law schools proposed a similar option for Illinois law graduates.
The nine deans suggested a plan “that would grant certain recent graduates a temporary license to practice, under supervision, until December 31, 2021, or 30 days after the results of the first bar examination they take are released, whichever occurs sooner.”
The American Bar Association also endorsed this option. In early April, the ABA Board of Governors approved a resolution urging jurisdictions to allow temporary licenses to law graduates who work under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
Marsha Griggs, an associate professor at the Washburn University School of Law in Kansas, authored an article in the Northwestern University Law Review last month titled “Sorry, Not Sorry: Temporary Practice in a Pandemic.” In it, she said the proposed temporary practice rules are “an admirable first response to the pandemic if the bar exam is administered in September.”
“But if public health concerns prevent a fall bar exam, the temporary practice will prove to be a Band-Aid on a wound needing suture,” Griggs wrote. “New lawyers working in small firms, legal aid, and as public defenders will be hard pressed to serve clients and find time to study. And the clients served by lawyers in these practice areas are the most vulnerable.”
McGuire, the recent University of North Carolina School of Law graduate, said she doubts it will be safe to take the exam next year in February.
“It will likely be much worse in February. If I don’t get a license this year, I don't know when it's going to happen. And that’s devastating to think about,” she said.