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Law deans seek bar exam help, expansion of CLI program

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Legal booksFlorida’s 12 law school deans have asked the Supreme Court and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to administer the bar exam in both July and September this year and to allow law school graduates to be admitted without taking the exam if ithe exam must be significantly delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The deans in an April 7 letter also sought an expansion of the certified legal intern program and allowing the exam to be administered on law school campuses instead of one location to comply with social distancing mandates for dealing with the outbreak.

The letter said the deans were offering “insights about logistical matters, observations regarding the pandemic’s impact on law students, and our ideas for proposed solutions. We also seek to assist the state in meeting the increased public demand for legal services that will likely arise in the wake of COVID-19. Above all, we express our alignment with the Court and the Board of Bar Examiners that some rigorous process is necessary to ensure the competency of new attorneys, even in these tumultuous circumstances.”

FBBE Executive Director Michele Gavagni said the deans’ letter is being considered by the FBBE task force working on carrying out the agency’s functions during the COVID-19 crisis. That includes monitoring health and government officials’ recommendations in making decisions about administering the bar exam.

“The primary factor is whether the examination can be administered to the applicants in a manner that protects the safety of the applicants and those administering the examination while continuing the board’s mission to protect the public by ensuring that applicants seeking admission to The Florida Bar have demonstrated minimum technical competence,” Gavagni said.

She added: “The Board understands the stress caused by the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. Further, the Board understands that the impact the COVID-19 crisis may have on the July bar exam is a source of additional stress. The Board is working hard on this matter and will update our website as new information becomes available.”

The next bar exam is scheduled for July 28-29 at the Tampa Convention Center.

Florida State University School of Law Dean Erin O’Connor said the law deans held a Zoom meeting April 3 and finished their letter April 7. She noted that the deans met a year ago with the Supreme Court and the FBBE to discuss the bar exam and the deans wanted to have input into the FBBE’s COVID-19 task force.

The letter, she said, addresses several concerns she has heard from graduating law students.

“Most students I have heard from are very anxious about the uncertainty surrounding whether and when the next exam will take place. In general, the students are very eager to take the exam in July as originally scheduled. Those with jobs lined up are worried that the jobs will disappear if they can’t be licensed according to the anticipated schedule. Others worry that their jobs will be delayed, resulting in more debt. Some students anticipate that they will need to take full-time work while studying for the exam in the event of delay, and our statistics show that full-time work often does not leave sufficient time to prepare for the exam,” O’Connor said.

“However, some students have health issues that make them uncomfortable taking the exam in July in a packed room. These students prefer an exam environment where social distancing and other health precautions can occur. Alternatively, these students seek a delayed exam.”

The deans in their letter suggested several options, including using law school campuses to administer the bar exam, if those campuses can be reopened under federal, state, and local rules and regulations. Using several locations, they say, is safer than having 3,000 test takers gather in one location, would ease travel requirements, and make it easier to maintain safe distances among students and exam proctors.

“We recognize that this decentralized approach would constitute a massive logistical undertaking. Test security is a critical priority, and we know that the Board of Bar Examiners would need unprecedented access to (and control of) our facilities. But we believe it is possible to spread the administration of the bar exam across the state, to allow localized administrations with safer, smaller groups. If the Court and the Board wish to explore this option, we stand ready and eager to help you,” the letter said. That would include training law school personnel to be exam proctors.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which conducts the Multistate Bar Exam that is Part B of the Florida bar exam, is looking at offering the MBE not only in July but also on September 9-10 and September 30-October 1.

The law deans recommended that the FBBE offer the full bar exam both in July and at a second date in September.

“This approach would give examinees more opportunities to test, and more flexibility to accommodate diverse circumstances. It also will reduce the number of examinees at each administration, which will make it easier to impose safety measures and ensure exam security,” the letter said.

The bar exam is administered in two parts, the Florida specific Part A and the MBE Part B. Currently FBBE allows law students to take just Part B in July, and if they pass that return to take Part A in February. The law deans recommended allowing the test takers the flexibility to take one part at a time in whatever order they choose.

The deans also said taking the exam in parts may become more important if the July exam must be delayed as some law students will have to find jobs to support themselves and their families, and it will also be easier for out-of-state and later-in-life applicants who are likely already working full time.

As part of that, exam fees should be lower for those taking only one part of the exam, the deans said.

Expanding the certified legal intern program, the deans said, would help law students who have graduated but may not be able to work as lawyers if the exam is delayed. They recommended the program be expanded to allow those who have not previously been certified to attain CLI status if they have graduated from an accredited law school and passed the FBBE’s character and fitness review.

The CLI status would last for 24 months or until the bar exam had been administered four times, whichever comes later, and the interns would be able to “work on all legal matters in the State of Florida so long as they are supervised by any attorney licensed to practice law and in good standing in the State of Florida,” the deans recommended. They also suggested the CLI fees have an extended deadline or be allowed to be paid in installments.

“These changes will allow our graduates to enter the workforce with minimal delay after graduation,” the letter said. “This flexibility will provide a financial lifeline for them and their families. Coupled with additional exam administrations, and opportunities to take the bar exam in parts, the CLI option would diminish the long-term impact of the crisis upon our graduates’ careers. This option will also bring new lawyers directly to the frontlines in a time of increased need for legal services.”

If the CLI program is not expanded and especially if the bar exam cannot be administered by October 1, the deans asked that the affected law school graduates be admitted without taking the exam but after a period of supervised practice. It would apply to those who have passed the FBBE’s character and fitness review, which the deans said is one of the most rigorous in the nation.

“It may be a long time before conditions permit a traditional administration of the bar exam. A mass licensure delay will have permanent implications for this class of new lawyers and the legal profession,” the letter said. “Admission without examination would provide a path for new lawyers to work with established members of The Florida Bar in ensuring access to justice during this unprecedented time.”

The deans said they do not seek to abolish the bar exam but the recommendation is a “proportional response to a temporary global crisis.”

“We are grateful to the Court and the Board of Bar Examiners for the expedient measures that have already been taken,” the letter concluded. “We have confidence in your judgment, and we recognize that there are no perfect solutions. We welcome the opportunity for dialogue, and we stand ready to help.”

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