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July bar-takers raise concerns about in-person exam

While officials from the Missouri Board of Law Examiners say they are working to ensure the safety of everyone who is present during the upcoming July bar exam, some test-takers say they are growing increasingly anxious about testing in person in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s unlikely any recent law school graduates could have foreseen that they’d have to take the most stressful test of their lives while also in the midst of a global pandemic, a cratering economy and widespread civil unrest stemming from racial inequality.

But recent graduates who plan to sit for the test in Missouri say all of those factors are exacerbating the normal stress that accompanies the exam, which in Missouri is still scheduled to take place July 28 and 29, in person, as cases in the state continue to rise and new hot spots of COVID-19 emerge.

In the past week, in-person bar exam testing has come under greater scrutiny as recent graduates across the country have echoed the anxieties of test-takers in Missouri. One such Twitter thread that illustrated the plight of test-takers, shared by Alyssa Leader, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law, was shared more than 2,300 times and received more 6,200 likes.

Already, the Board of Law Examiners has released a list of the precautions it is taking to protect examinees: To sit for the test, test-takers must attest to a list of criteria, including that they do not have a fever and have not had contact with someone with COVID-19 in recent days.

Test-takers also will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing while checking in and during the test itself.

Click to read the full Twitter thread

Those administering the test also are taking safety precautions. While handing out materials, staffers and proctors will be required to wear gloves, masks, face shields and disposable gowns.

The board has identified backup dates for the test in September, should the July exam not be held. It also will allow students to postpone taking the test to February without paying a postponement fee.

In addition, test-takers are required to sign a release of liability. That is not sitting well with a number of recent graduates, among them Fluffy Kilburn, a recent University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law graduate and president of UMKC Law’s Black Law Students Association.

“I think that the release that they’re making us sign is an indication of it being a terrible idea,” she said.

Katelyn Chumley, who in May graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law, agreed.

“To me that’s a signal that clearly something is wrong,” she said.

Andrea Spillars, executive director of the board, declined to comment on the decision to require the waiver. But she said the board is strongly encouraging test-takers who are concerned about the risk of exposure to postpone until February, when there may be breakthroughs in treatment or possible a vaccine available for COVID-19.

“It’s a constantly changing landscape,” she said. “We’re taking every effort that we possibly can to address those concerns but we can’t eliminate all risk.”

Test-takers are pushing back on that recommendation, however, saying it puts them in a position of delaying their ability to practice law and earn a living, as well as their ability to repay their student loans.

Spillars said the trigger for moving the July test dates to September would be changes in local restrictions on mass gatherings — not an increase in cases in the areas where the tests are scheduled to take place.

Already, two states — Utah and Washington — have allowed graduates to practice law without passing the bar exam, granting them what is known as diploma privilege. Spillars said the board has not endorsed that idea for Missouri.

“We are still implementing the bar exam because we believe it is the best measure of minimum competency, and that’s the board’s mission,” she said.

Spillars said the board is working to ensure the safety of people taking the test and recognizes that they are experiencing a stressful situation.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that we’ve created an environment that isn’t more stressful but is keeping everybody as safe as possible,” she said.

Masking concerns

For many new graduates, reducing pre-exam stress is easier said than done.

Chumley said she is anxious about getting sick and spreading it to her family. She’s currently acting as caregiver for her mother, who has dementia.

“They’re putting so many of us in a room and expecting nothing to happen?” she said. “I don’t think it would affect me, but I could never get over the fact if I made my mom sick.”

Chumley said she questions whether wearing a mask may impact her test performance. On social media, fellow test-takers who are taking practice tests say they are seeing as much of a 20 percent decrease in their scores while wearing masks because of the distraction they cause, she said.

Don Quinn, a recent University of Missouri law graduate who has asthma, said he also is concerned about wearing a mask with his condition. He said he finds it ironic that the legal profession is making efforts to improve mental health within its ranks at the same time states are moving forward with in-person bar testing.

“When push comes to shove, we’re still going to shove law students into a room surrounded by people who are concerned about whether they’re going to die, wearing a mask, which reinforces the idea you’re potentially in a room with someone who has COVID, and expect them to perform at the same level as people who went before them,” he said.

Quinn said he believes the Missouri Supreme Court should reconsider holding the exam in person, noting it’s an opportunity to show national leadership and compassion for recent graduates.

Jacob Welchans, a recent graduate of Washburn University School of Law, said he’s been preparing for the exam while wearing a mask to try to get used to it.

“It’s not fun,” he said. “I get overheated, and it’s not easy to breathe in it.”

While Chumley, Quinn and Kilburn support the idea of diploma privilege, Welchans said he’s on the fence.

“I feel like there’s a lot of people that can slip through the cracks if they don’t have the bar exam experience, and I’m afraid about attorneys that are not qualified to be licensed being licensed,” he said.

A new testing location

In addition to the stress of wearing masks, test-takers say the board also threw a curve in their exam plans in early June, when it announced it would use a new testing location at the Tan-Tar-A Conference Center in Osage Beach to accommodate social distancing during the exam.

The bar said it would notify test-takers by July 7 — three weeks before the exam — whether they will remain at the planned location in Columbia or whether they’ll have to find new accommodations in the Lake of Ozarks.

Kilburn said she’s held a reservation at the hotel hosting the exam in Columbia since last year. Now she is concerned about the prospect of losing money having to switch locations, as well as finding a room in Osage Beach.

 ‘We’re making history right now’

Some recent graduates say they also are finding it difficult to focus on bar prep while people across the country are protesting for racial equality.

Chumley and Kilburn, who are both Black, said they are struggling to focus solely on bar prep during a time of significant social upheaval and national reflection on race relations.

Chumley said she can never disengage from being Black, and she fears for the safety of others who look like her, and for her family members who are involved in protesting.

“It’s hard to turn off that part of your brain and that part that’s worrying about everything and letting that material sink in,” she said.

Kilburn said state officials now have a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the bar exam.

“I think they have an opportunity to make a statement,” she said. “This is unprecedented for all of us. We understand the importance of the exam historically, but right now we’re in historic times.”

Graduates of the class of 2020 took it in stride when their classes went online, their graduations were canceled and family members got sick, Kilburn noted.

“We’re doing our best, and I would encourage them to be honest and be fair, be just,” she said. “That’s what our whole profession is about.”

RELATED: Supreme Court sets limits on bar exam during pandemic

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This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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