The Missouri Supreme Court said July 9 that Missouri’s in-person bar exam will take place as scheduled this month, despite calls from students and the deans of all four of Missouri’s law schools to cancel it as COVID-19 cases rise.
In a statement, Court Clerk Betsy AuBuchon acknowledged the “unprecedented challenges to this core responsibility of the Court and the Board, as well as unprecedented burdens on those taking the Bar Exam.” She also said the court had considered the proposed alternatives.
“In the end, however, the Court has concluded none of these alternatives adequately ensures the core function of licensure, which is to protect the integrity of the profession and the public from those who have not demonstrated minimum competency to practice law,” AuBuchon wrote. A precautionary order the court issued earlier in the year “best balances that long-term responsibility and these short-term burdens,” she wrote.
The court’s statement came a day after William P. Johnson of Saint Louis University School of Law, Lyrissa Lidsky of the University of Missouri School of Law, Barbara Glesner Fines of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and Nancy Staudt of Washington University School of Law suggested in a letter that the court grant provisional law licenses to graduates of Missouri law schools, or else broaden Rule 13 certification to include more areas of practice.
In an interview following the court’s decision, Lidsky said that while it’s still possible that a spike in COVID-19 cases could prompt local health officials to prevent the exams from taking place, students should assume the exam will take place.
“My advice to bar-takers would be, as hard as it is, try to buckle down so you never have to study for this exam again,” she said. “I have the greatest compassion for them right now. I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories. The bar exam is always hard, but this is not like taking the bar exam in any normal kind of environment.”
The deans’ letter sought to bolster an effort by recent graduates organized around the Twitter handle “MO 4 Diploma Privilege” who have called on the court to suspend the in-person exam. In a statement on Twitter following the Supreme Court’s decision, the group said its members were “beyond disappointed that our concerns weren’t heard” and that the group “will not stop fighting.”
Students involved in that effort declined interview requests, saying they fear their professional prospects will be hurt by their advocacy.
The group had sent a letter signed by nearly 300 people, including recent graduates, Missouri law school officials and practicing lawyers, advocating a one-time “diploma privilege” that would do away with the need for those registered in July to take the bar exam. Lidsky and Dean Johnson of SLU had supported that letter as well.
Their letter argued that COVID-19 presents an unreasonable health risk for in-person test-takers and that safety protocols put into place by the Missouri Board of Law Examiners are “vague and inadequate.”
“Prioritizing work over immediate well-being should rarely, if ever, be encouraged and should never be expected on an institutional level,” the group said. “Whether to do so should be an informed, personal choice, but for graduates registered for the July 2020 bar exam, it is neither.”
Additionally, they argued that postponing the exam could jeopardize employment offers and add to financial hardships for graduates who carry student loan debt. And an online bar exam would shut out test-takers who lack uninterrupted access to a computer, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to take the test, they said.
A handful of recent graduates who split from the MO 4 Diploma Privilege group had submitted a separate letter to the court, advocating for the diploma privilege but also remaining open to an online exam.
Precautions in place
The in-person exam is set for July 28 and 29 at two sites: the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia and Tan-Tar-A Conference Center in Osage Beach.
According to plans submitted to local health officials in Columbia, 418 test-takers will be split among three separate, large conference rooms. About 40 additional examinees who have qualified for testing accommodations will be spread out among smaller or individual rooms. In Osage Beach, up to 255 test-takers will be split among four separate conference rooms.
At either site, test-takers will be required to attest that they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and have not been in recent contact with someone with the virus, and they will have to wear face masks and distance themselves from each other. They also will be required to sign a liability waiver.
Although current local orders in Boone County bar groups of more than 100 people from gathering, MBLE has received a waiver to hold the bar exam.
Michelle Shikles, public health promotion supervisor for Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, said MBLE has shown in its plans that it will be able to maintain social distancing requirements and disinfecting protocols, and will maintain a list of test-takers for contact tracing.
When asked specifically about potential risks of being in an enclosed space for several hours — the exam is administered in two six-hour days — Shikles said the plans were sufficient to prevent spread of the disease.
“If they’re adequately distanced like they’ve proposed, there shouldn’t be a risk of exposure,” she said.
In an order in April, the Supreme Court also allowed examinees to delay taking the exam without paying a fee and extended the temporary certification period under Rule 13 so that recent graduates could continue to practice in limited subject matters under supervision.