Law grads ‘left hanging’ after bar exam called off

Florida Coronavirus News

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — After moving the test online because of COVID-19, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has called off a plan to hold the Bar exam on Wednesday because it was not “technically feasible.”

The board announced late Sunday that the exam will take place “on a date to be determined in October.” Applicants who signed up for the exam, originally slated to be in person in late July, can also wait until February to take the test, the announcement said.

The last-minute cancellation, issued on the eve of a scheduled live trial of the examination software, ignited a frenzy on social media among people planning to take the exam and their supporters, who have urged the Board of Bar Examiners to drop the test altogether this year or to replace the multiple-choice exam with essays submitted by email, as some other states have done amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It just devastated me,” Theresa Black, who earlier this year had signed up to take the in-person test, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.

Black, a graduate of the Loyola University New Orleans law school who lives in Alabama but wants to move back to Florida, called the board’s last-minute move “negligence at its finest.”

“Now, we don’t even know what date the exam is going to be. We’re just left hanging and hanging and hanging,” she said.

The board’s July 1 decision to hold the exam online came after an outcry from graduates, law school professors and legislators, who argued that holding the test in person was contrary to health officials’ social-distancing recommendations and posed a danger to test-takers with underlying medical conditions who have a higher risk of complications from the virus.

But the board’s rules for the online exam and technical problems with the ILG Technologies software used for the test sparked a furor among prospective test-takers and their advocates, including the deans of 10 Florida law schools.

The college leaders last week asked the Florida Supreme Court and the board to adopt a “contingency plan” that would allow an open-book exam and essay questions submitted by email. The Supreme Court has authority over the board.

The law-school deans, including deans of schools at Florida State University, Stetson University and the University of Miami, also urged the board to “examine critically” the use of the multiple-choice exam, “and to consider whether it can be administered at all if the ILG software is deemed to be unworkable.”

“Announcing this sort of contingency plan in advance will inspire confidence among applicants that the examination will proceed in some form, unhindered by technological obstacles. It also will help lessen the understandable stress and anxiety of our graduates, who will welcome (and deserve) the additional clarity and reassurance,” the deans wrote on Friday.

Sunday’s announcement came after the board scrapped two previous versions of the ILG software after applicants “identified issues of concern.” The latest version was slated to undergo a live trial on Monday.

“Despite the board’s best efforts to offer a licensure opportunity in August, it was determined that administering a secure and reliable remote bar examination in August was not technically feasible,” the board’s announcement said.

Black and other law-school graduates who installed the software on their laptops said it caused problems such as overheating, malware and response lags.

With the test already an anxiety-producing event, the shifting dates, modifications of rules and the sense of limbo created by the delay has put many law-school graduates — especially those who had been promised jobs, once they passed the exam — on edge for weeks.

“We will be dealing with this for 2 more months. I have watched my classmates crowdfund utilities to pay for their apartment. People had to buy new computers. This is Hell,” University of Miami law school graduate Johnny Carver wrote in a Twitter post early Monday morning.

Potential test takers will have to study for two more months “on their 2nd exam delay and 6th format change,” Carver wrote, adding that many graduates will lose health insurance from their law schools and will miss out on employment offers.

“Credible suicidal thoughts reported,” he tweeted.

To help offset the exam postponement, the board created a “supervised practice program” that is similar to an existing “Certified Legal Intern” program. The new program will “allow for practice with supervision by a member of The Florida Bar,” Sunday’s announcement said.

The program will begin in mid-September, when grades would have been released for the July test, the board noted.

“Details regarding eligibility and rules for participation will be announced once they are finalized,” the announcement said.

But the supervisory program isn’t the equivalent of being a full-fledged lawyer, critics of the board’s decisions maintain.

Tallahassee lawyer G.C. Murray II scolded the board on social media late Sunday night.

“It seems clear to me that the Florida Board of Bar Examiners (#FBBE) never had an adequate secondary (or tertiary) plan in place,” Murray, CEO of the firm Association G.C., wrote in a Facebook post. “This is a failure of foresight, transparency, and execution at the highest levels of the #FBBE and I hope that members of The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division ask the Court to conduct a thorough review into the actions of the executive leadership team at the #FBBE.”

The wrangling over the exam has fueled intense criticism on both sides on social media.

Some advocates have faced backlash for suggesting that the exam should be waived this year. Critics accuse the law-school graduates of using COVID-19 to skip out of taking the test.

But Black, who has an autoimmune disorder, dismissed such accusations.

“I don’t think this is a pass. Nobody has had to study under these conditions. The amount of stress, just COVID alone. You can’t leave the house. The children are running around. The libraries are closed. The schools are closed,” she said. “The biggest problem with the delay is my family wants me back. I feel heartbroken.”

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