A top Democrat in the State Senate wants court officials in New York to explore alternative options to an in-person bar exam for prospective attorneys in September, citing concerns over the coronavirus.
Officials had already postponed the in-person bar exam from July to September, but Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, says that’s not enough.
Gianaris, an attorney, wrote a letter this week to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore asking her to consider other options, including the possibility of administering the test online.
“Preparing for the bar exam is itself a stressful venture, made more intense by the threat of a global pandemic,” Gianaris wrote. “This further necessitates that test-taking conditions be as comfortable and safe as possible.”
The New York Board of Law Examiners has already acknowledged to prospective attorneys that the bar exam may be postponed again. The test, which is offered twice a year in New York, isn’t scheduled to be administered again until February 2021.
The bar exam is the last step for prospective attorneys in New York before they’re formally admitted to practice law. Without the exam, those individuals aren’t able to practice law to the fullest extent in New York, limiting their career opportunities in the meantime.
Gianaris wrote that delaying the exam again would have a negative financial impact on applicants.
“To again postpone the bar exam would be financially damaging for candidates who already have legal jobs paying a lower rate until bar exam passage,” Gianaris wrote. “Others may not be able to attain employment to begin with until they have taken and passed the exam.”
There are also special complications to the bar exam that the state should consider, Gianaris said. A number of applicants travel from other states to New York for the test, and under an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, they may have to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Under that order, individuals traveling from states with high coronavirus infection rates have to self-quarantine for at least 14 days. The state modifies that list regularly, but there’s no way of knowing which states will, or won’t, be on it days before the bar exam.
Applicants who want to withdraw from the bar exam have to do so by Wednesday, July 15th. If they choose to go ahead with the exam, but then can’t take it, they don’t get a refund. The application fee is $250.
Gianaris mentioned two alternatives that DiFiore could consider instead of an in-person bar exam. The first would be the possibility of an online version of the test, which is being offered in a handful of states this year.
The second would be a so-called “emergency diploma,” which would allow law school graduates to forgo the bar exam and instead be admitted to practice law if they’ve graduated from an accredited law school, and met certain qualifications.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation that would allow emergency diploma privilege. The bill would require law school grads to pass a few preliminary exams to secure that option.
A spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration said they’re in receipt of Gianaris’ request, and that it’s under review.
Here's the full letter from Gianaris: