Disparate Impact Magnified: Holding a Bar Exam during the COVID 19 Pandemic year of 2020

Yesterday the Harvard Law Review blog posted an excellent piece by a powerhouse group of legal educators who describe the prospect of a “licensing abyss” just when non-privileged folks and small businesses will need extra legal assistance to navigate the health, employment, housing and government benefits legal landscape.  On the same day, the ABA also urged states that cancel or delay the bar exam to  license law grads on an emergency basis “to help address the increase in legal needs for individuals and businesses caused by this pandemic.”

The Harvard blog authors note, in addition, the the reluctance of bar examiners and courts to find alternatives to the “closed-book, two-day exam anchored in 200 multiple-choice questions” despite the option of so many good alternatives that may well better predict competence to practice law. The authors ask,

Why do our courts and bar examiners place so much faith in this high-stakes exam to predict who is competent to practice law?

This question has puzzled readers and contributors of this blog particularly in light of the discriminatory nature of “speeded” exams  and the economic call for practice-ready lawyers. It is also puzzling when the profession itself is so deficient in diversity and standardized tests are used in ways that preference the privileged.

For 2020, the issue of disparate impact with respect to timed, closed-book exams anchored in multiple choice questions is further exacerbated by law students’ quarantine and sheltering conditions while studying for the bar exam- see the excellent piece in the NYT on how students returning home to attend classes removes the veneer that all are equal. Even more disturbing and heartbreaking is the information surfacing this week about the horrific disparate impact of COVID19 deaths on Americans of color.  Pre-existing disparities in trauma, housing, employment, healthcare, opportunity, discrimination and historical DNA exacerbate the distress and fatalities for communities of color and for those whose families and friends are populated by people of color.  Some of us – particularly our students of color – will be affected in disproportionate ways and in ways no one can predict or control over the course of the coming months.

As the authors of the Harvard Law Blog wrote, “Crises challenge assumptions and demand action. For this year, emergency licensing based on diplomas and periods of supervised practice would offer proof of competence.”  To do otherwise would demonstrate an inability of our profession to adapt and experiment, and a shocking refusal to recognize and correct disparate impacts.

4 Responses

  1. Mary has so described the injustice that’s being perpetrated by the failure of the powerful to welcome a diverse group of new lawyers, so desperately needed, to join the profession that my comment is that I agree with her and have no other comment.

  2. LOL! I will gladly accept agreement.

  3. Did you notice this section in Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.15, on April 9, 2020:

    Sections 6512 through 6516, and 6524 of the Education Law and Part 60 of Title 8 of the NYCRR, to the extent necessary to allow individuals, who graduated from registered or accredited medical programs located in New York State in 2020, to practice medicine in New York State, without the need to obtain a license and without civil or criminal penalty related to lack of licensure, provided that the practice of medicine by such graduates shall in all cases be supervised by a physician licensed and registered to practice medicine in the State of New York.


    I realize that this is temporary, although that seems as if it could mean quite a while. But my first reaction was, Really? Docs can practice without sitting for an exam, but not lawyers?

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