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States Delay Or Cancel Bar Exams, Leave Many Law Graduates In Limbo


July is the month when most states administer their bar exams. That's the test that aspiring lawyers have to pass in order to be allowed to practice. The exams are usually taken in big groups. But this year, because of concerns about the coronavirus, more than half of states have delayed or canceled their bar exams, leaving many law school graduates in limbo. Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Fordham University law school graduate Mary Kate Cunningham has a job lined up defending social workers in New York City Family Court - or at least she did before New York canceled its bar exam after initially delaying it for a couple of months.

MARY KATE CUNNINGHAM: I have to have my bar license.

GILES: Some states, like Oregon, Washington and Utah, are allowing recent law school grads to be licensed without sitting for the bar if they earned diplomas from schools certified by the American Bar Association. It's an option Cunningham wishes New York offered.

CUNNINGHAM: So we're not talking about just any old person can come up and become a lawyer. These are people who have already sat through three years of law school, who have often taken smaller licensure exams and passed those exams.

GILES: It's unclear what New York will do next. But if they require applicants to take the bar in person, Cunningham says she has no choice but to take it.

CUNNINGHAM: People who are making the choice to have an in-person bar exam are having applicants choose between licensure or exposure to a deadly disease that has lifelong consequences if you - even if you recover from it.

GILES: In Kentucky, Emily Croucher was ready to take that risk. After graduating from UC Irvine, she'd moved across the country to pursue her dream job and spent 400 hours studying for Kentucky's bar exam in July. Then Kentucky canceled its bar and became one of a handful of states that have turned to digital tests as an alternative.

EMILY CROUCHER: I am high-risk for COVID. I have asthma. And I was willing to die to take this test, which I think says a lot about how much this exam means and how it - your entire career depends on this moment.

GILES: Croucher is currently on her first week on the job as a public defender, a job she took with the understanding she'd only have limited responsibilities until she passed the bar.

Some states are reluctant to administer the bar online over concerns about monitoring it for cheaters. And some test-takers have their own worries, like access to a computer with a good Internet connection. California plans to kick test-takers out of their online bar exam if they lose their connection for longer than 10 minutes - and won't allow them to complete it.

But the online option looks good to Jocelyn Tellez-Amado in Tucson.

JOCELYN TELLEZ-AMADO: So both of my parents, you know, have diabetes. My dad has high blood pressure. Maybe my mom does, too. I - they have a couple of new risk factors.

GILES: That means Tellez-Amado is going to skip Arizona's regular in-person bar exam next week and wait until October when it's offered online. Arizona is one of five states that's offering both in-person and online options. Tellez-Amado, who lived with her mother during law school, says she's lucky because her first job as a judicial law clerk doesn't require her to pass the bar immediately. But for the hundreds of Arizonans still planning to sit for the exam, she said the state's assurances of social distancing during the test aren't that assuring in a state that's become a hotspot for the virus.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Giles (KJZZ)