After urging from Texas law school deans and aspiring lawyers, the Texas Supreme Court on Friday canceled the two-day in-person bar exams scheduled for later this month, citing growing concerns about COVID-19. The bar exams will be offered online in October.
An in-person exam is still planned for Sept. 9 and 10 but could be canceled depending on recommendations from public health authorities. The Texas Board of Law Examiners will announce assistance for wi-fi and appropriate testing spaces and arrangements for people who prefer handwritten tests.
The July exam, which was to bring more than 1,000 people into testing centers across the state, was canceled a day after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned certain outdoor gatherings of over 10 people unless local officials approve, down from the previous restriction of 100 people.
However, some have voiced concerns that delaying the bar examination could later limit job opportunity or cause professional challenges. Students generally spend 350 to 500 hours studying in the months leading up to the exam and graduate with an average of $107,000 in loans for law school, according to a letter from the 10 Texas law school deans.
The deans, along with some students and others in the legal community, suggested instead of moving the exam online, to offer the option of legal apprenticeships in lieu of an exam or extending diploma privilege — a once-common practice that allowed law school graduates to be admitted to the bar without taking the exam.
Under previous orders, applicants could delay their exam to February and practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
Rachael Beavers, a recent University of Houston Law Center graduate, is skeptical that the September exam will happen — or should — considering the rise in Texas’ COVID-19 cases.
“The idea that that is going to happen is optimism bordering on delusion,” Beavers said, adding that she's been studying for the exam eight hours per day, including weekends, for weeks. “I’ve been tracking the COVID numbers and it doesn't seem like that is going to be safe to administer.”
Beavers said she doesn't feel like she knows how to best prepare for the exam anymore.
The requirements for the in-person exam and the online exam will be different, with varying numbers of questions and essays required. The board will determine how to weigh the online exam. That also makes Beavers nervous.
“This is such a Rubik's cube of complexity that they've created, that it's hard to keep track of even what we will be studying,” Beavers said. “There's no way to know what's going to be on it. It's nearly impossible to study for.”
Friday’s decision follows the recommendation that the board made Thursday, after urging from the Texas law school deans, letters from recent law-school graduates, other public input and an online petition calling for diploma privilege.
An additional registration period for the September or October exam will be made available for new applicants. July or September applicants can change their application to the February 2021 bar exam for free.
Before canceling the exam, the court approved shortening the July test and authorized the special September date to reduce the number of bar exam-takers.
"This test is not going to be testing competency for any of the applicants this year," Beavers said. "It's going to be testing their ability to adapt to this situation."