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Law school grads, wary of COVID-19, ask for a pass on Virginia's bar exam

Law school grads, wary of COVID-19, ask for a pass on Virginia's bar exam

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Citing concerns over potential COVID-19 infection, a group of law school graduates who are registered to take the Virginia bar exam in Roanoke at the end of this month have proposed an unconventional solution: waive that notoriously difficult requirement.

While the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners has not yet gone that far, last week it added new options for test-takers, including postponement, plus the opportunity to take a shortened version of the exam later this summer.

Approximately 705 applicants seeking law licenses are registered to take the exam in Roanoke. It is to be conducted at the Berglund Center across two daylong sessions starting July 28. Graduates prepare for it for months and ordinarily can only take it in February or July, so for aspiring lawyers it’s a make-or-break moment.

In a petition slated to be sent Monday to the state Supreme Court, as well as to Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, a collective of law graduates calling themselves Diploma Privilege for Virginia took issue with the risks that could be associated with an extended mass gathering of that type.

“We urge the Supreme Court to adapt to the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic by revisiting the state licensing system in Virginia,” the group’s letter reads.

“Specifically, we respectfully request that the Supreme Court enact a diploma privilege for all recent graduates and 2020 graduates who plan to take the July 2020 Bar Exam and practice law in Virginia.”

The request asks for bar admission to be granted to graduates of accredited law schools who receive the required character and fitness certifications.

Over the weekend, the group’s petition on Change.org reached 1,000 signatures and included numerous blind testimonials, from both registered applicants and concerned Virginia residents.

“People will be coming in from out of state to take the bar exam, some flying,” one graduate wrote. “Roanoke is in the middle of nowhere and almost everyone taking the exam will not only be in the same testing center together, we will be in the same hotels for 2+ days.”

The group’s request echoes other efforts across the United States. According to the American Bar Association Journal, diploma privilege was recently granted in Oregon, Utah and Washington. In light of the pandemic, other states have allowed some degree of online test-taking or postponements.

On the prospect of delayed testing, the group’s petition points to an impending need for legal professionals — in large part due to side effects of COVID-19 itself — as well as potential complications they could face in obtaining and starting new jobs as licensed lawyers.

On Friday, as the graduates’ concerns gathered momentum, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners posted a list of precautions being taken against infection risks, including mask requirements, temperature checks before entry, multiple testing areas within the Berglund Center, and social distancing measures.

“Should any applicant currently registered to take the July 2020 Exam feel they are unable to take the exam under these conditions, they may carry forward to the February 2021 Exam,” a notice on the site said. The group has also waived the $175 fee it normally applies to those who want to switch dates after registration.

Catherine Crooks Hill, secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, said over the weekend that about a dozen of the July registrants have already filed to reschedule to February.

“The Board is not in favor of diploma privilege and has declined to adopt a remote exam option due to the security risks and inequitable access issues inherent in a remote exam,” Hill emailed Sunday night.

On Friday, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners also announced the new option of a one-day version of the bar exam, on Sept. 10 in Richmond. That shorter form consists of nine Virginia-centric essays and 10 multiple-choice questions, and it eliminates the multi-state bar exam portion altogether, which typically fills a day.

Bar applicants who have already opted to switch to February are still allowed to take the September exam, but only one date can be selected.

In Virginia, it costs $575 to apply for the bar exam, and additional character and fitness fees run $750. The laptop registration fee is $175.

In cases of admission to the bar without examination, such as it occurs, the cost is $2,500, according to the VBBE web site.

The Virginia diploma privilege petition is online at https://bit.ly/3iUND60.

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