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.

Bylaws and business meetings: a 1L experiential module

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School

The first year of law school rightfully has been criticized for overly prioritizing the litigation model and for making it the central focus of our teaching. This emphasis lulls students into believing that the judicial audience is the primary consumer of legal communications. To counteract that skewing, those of us teaching in the 1L curriculum are often exhorted to find ways to discuss transactional forms of legal writing. But, contract-drafting is not easily built into a curriculum already bursting at the seams with the must-have’s that we cram into the lower-credited experiential classes of the 1L year.

Enter the idea of dedicating part of two or three classes to small-organization bylaws and business meetings. The bylaws of a small organization are constitutional, so this type of teaching module fits in nicely with what they are learning in other introductory courses. And while some students may know a little bit about bylaws and business meetings from previous experiences in college, religious groups, or other volunteer activities, most students probably won’t have a great deal of knowledge. Learning about these ideas will appeal to them because of the immediate applicability to the very student-run organizations in which, as rising 2Ls, they are poised to assume leadership positions.

I begin by asking those students with a little bit of knowledge to help me outline, on the board, the setup and order of a business meeting. Typically, at least one or two students in a group of 20 will be able to walk others through it with a little bit of prompting. We talk about why a roll call must happen right after the call to order and opening ceremonies. Ask your own students how many of them know something about quorum—you may be startled to learn how few students do. Teaching them what quorum is and how it relates to business-agenda items engages the students and almost immediately makes them realize just how practical this module is.

Discussions about business meetings naturally leads to a conversation about the rudiments of Robert’s Rules of Order and how voting happens on an agenda item.[1] I have sometimes run a class or two in a business-meeting format, inviting students to make formal motions about some of the softer deadlines in the course. As part of that, students must calculate quorum to hold class at all. I always ask them the lowest number of votes it would take to carry a vote, assuming we had exactly quorum present. Students are awoken to the fact that in a class of 20 students, 6 students might be able to bind the other 14. (That is: quorum for a group of 20 students is 11. And if only 11 are present, a simple majority to carry a vote is 6). “It’s important to show up and have your vote counted,” I have remarked. The message isn’t lost on them.

Students also have the opportunity to step into role for actual representation work. A few years ago, knowing this module, our Women’s Law Caucus president approached me and asked if the 1Ls in my class might provide some advice about issues her executive board had identified in their bylaws. Naturally, I immediately agreed. To prepare students for their client, they first looked at a larger set of bylaws I had worked on for a local high school boosters organization. I changed a few items to take the bylaws out of compliance with the New Jersey statutes governing non-profit organizations (a relatively easy statutory scheme). Fifteen questions later, they knew enough to issue-spot in the much simpler student-organization bylaws. Then, in small groups, they looked at the Women’s Law Caucus bylaws and a week later offered their recommendations to the officers. Who adopted almost all of the advice.

This was such a feel-good moment for all involved that I have made it an annual module. Depending on the year, I have had students conclude with a client letter written by the small groups together, or I have simplified it even further and simply had the 1L students meet with the organization’s officer in class to offer their verbal recommendations (I act as scribe for the  officer in those circumstances). Each year I walk away impressed with the speed of absorption my 1L students have for this material. They take the representation seriously, and I think that they also enjoy it. I am likewise impressed with the 2L and 3L student’ willingness to serve as the client for my 1Ls even though it will net them extra work down the road as they work through the bylaws-amending process. I think they also feel that they learn valuable lessons by being the client. Having just completed this year’s project, I already have received a request from an organization’s new president to have my next year’s 1L students put her organization’s bylaws under their microscope.

This assignment is win-win for all involved. It is low-stakes for the 1L students, but it engages them in professional identity development, statutory analysis, problem-solving, and client-counseling skills. The module provides a pragmatic experience—who among us hasn’t been part of a business meeting or bylaws consultation?—and it offers a different perspective on legal practice. To put it simply: it’s relatively easy, it’s fun, and it’s real-world. I highly recommend it to others.

[1]The essentials of Robert’s Rules can be found online although the 11thedition is still a to-purchase item.

The Heart of a Justice

It’s interesting that, regardless of his conservative bona fides, Justice Scalia’s “best friend” on the court was Justice Ginsburg, one of the more liberal Justices.  The two, and their spouses, apparently socialized regularly.   As a law professor who works with students on a daily basis, I hope this aspect of Justice Scalia can provide a lesson to students and us all. This friendship of opposites demonstrates that a person’s humanity is measured by far more than the sum of one’s political views.

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