Law school graduates in Illinois petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court Monday to waive the bar exam requirement for those scheduled to take the test in September due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The emergency petition filed by recent law graduates asks the Illinois Supreme Court to waive the requirement and allow those who otherwise qualify to become licensed lawyers in the state, known as diploma privilege. The petition was written by Mollie McGuire, a 2020 graduate from the University of North Carolina School of Law who now lives in Chicago, and Dalton Hughes and Steven Tinetti, both graduates of the University of Illinois College of Law.
“We’re not asking for the easy way out,” McGuire said. “I would give anything for this to be a normal summer, to be taking the exam in a few weeks.”
Graduates typically take the bar exam in July, but Illinois pushed the test back to September due to the pandemic.
McGuire and others expressed concerns that there has been little communication about safety protocols for the two-day exam, which is usually taken by hundreds of students in the same space. They argue they shouldn’t have to put their health at risk or put their families at risk to pursue a legal career. McGuire has a child.
Plus, the delayed test date means more time before graduates can become licensed and hireable.
“We don’t have the resources to keep extending our inability to work because we can’t be attorneys without being licensed,” said Anabel Abarca, a 2020 graduate from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
The petition was signed by more than 1,300 people, including hundreds of graduates, law professors at many law schools across Chicago and the state, and organizations like the National Lawyers Guild Chicago and Chicago Appleseed.
The Illinois Supreme Court can grant the request, deny it or open up for public comments before making a decision. The court released a statement in response to the petition but did not say when they would respond.
“The Board of Admissions to the Bar is currently working on plans for the September bar exam that will comply with all safety guidelines from the CDC and state and local health departments,” the statement said. “Once complete, the plans will be submitted to the Illinois Supreme Court for approval.”
The students have asked for an expedited review.
The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar said on its website on Monday that it still plans to hold the test in September, but everyone will be required to wear face masks. It is still determining a location where social distancing is possible, but said public health concerns might still make it impossible to administer the exam in person. The board also posted on Monday that the hotel where graduates were instructed to stay for the test in Chicago would be closed during the rescheduled exam in September.
Last week, the state Supreme Court also said unlicensed graduates can work at public and private firms under the supervision of a lawyer due to the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic. But some students say that doesn’t address their concerns.
“It really would just push back what the current issue is,” Abarca said. “By not licensing the class, you’re asking us to stay in limbo for months, if not a year.”
Wisconsin is the only state that currently licenses lawyers without a requirement to pass the bar exam. Three states have granted diploma privilege in the wake of the pandemic, including Washington, Oregon and Utah. Minnesota and California are expected to decide whether to waive the requirement next week.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners released a white paper in April where it argued against waiving the bar exam, saying graduation from law school is not enough to prove someone is ready to become an attorney, as some law schools might feel pressured to pass students.
“Diploma privilege removes or curtails one of the criteria, bar passage, … to determine compliance with accreditation standards. The accreditation of law schools serves a critical function of protecting prospective law students, as well as protecting the public.”
Some states have shifted the bar exam online, but students said that can exacerbate already existing inequities if low-income graduates don’t have access to sufficient broadband internet access.
Law school graduates like Abarca also argue that historically the bar exam and other requirements to become a lawyer have a racist history and were used as a barrier to prevent immigrants and people of color from becoming attorneys in the early 20th century.
“With that in mind, the bar exam is not the only way to prove someone is qualified to become an attorney,” Abarca said. “This is a global pandemic. Other attorneys prior to us were not asked to choose between livelihood and their health because they needed to take an exam for two days.”