The Pandemic’s Impact on the Bar Exam

pandemic's impact on the bar exam
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Graduation from law school is a significant accomplishment. The knowledge and experience gathered through the education process prepares graduates to enter the real-world and market their skills. However, many job opportunities require passing the bar exam and earning a license to practice in the state where the graduate will be located.

In a typical year, the first bar exam opportunity after graduation occurs in July. However, 2020 was far from typical. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the July bar exam was postponed in California and a number of other states. Originally rescheduled to September, California pushed it once again to October in order to allow time for the state bar to prepare for a remotely administered exam. The delays in the administration of the bar exam caused two major points of stress for bar takers in California.

Difficulty setting a study plan

Studying for the bar exam is an intensive and extensive process and the delays and uncertainty around the testing dates made it difficult for test takers to map out and stick to study plans. It’s like training for a marathon, only to discover days before the race that the course length has doubled. The two-day exam, including standardized testing spanning constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, evidence, real property and torts, as well as essays covering a broad range of subjects, requires months of dedicated and structured preparation to maximize success.

Delayed job opportunities and losses of income

Because many job opportunities require a passed bar exam, recent graduates were financially impacted by the delayed testing dates. The date change from July to October, also meant a delay in the announcement of results from November 2020 to January 2021. In addition, the moving target for the testing date made it hard for graduates to secure interim work as they wanted to ensure they had capacity to study for the exam under each new deadline.

After two delays, the State Bar of California approved administering the test remotely in October using proctoring software that utilized the bar taker’s camera and captured keystrokes and the computer screen. The software used artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor and flag unusual activity for human review to ensure there was no cheating. While many prospective test takers were thankful for the remote option, it also put additional stress on bar takers.

Complicated process to ensure proper set-up

The bar exam itself is demanding but having to navigate all the detailed instructions to properly set up computer systems for a remotely administered and proctored exam compounded this stress. Although the test is typically administered through a laptop, unless bar takers arrange a handwritten option in advance, having in-person proctors removes the need for proctoring software as well as a webcam and microphone. The remote software and testing requirements also made it more critical that test takers had access to a secure internet connection to download each question and upload answers and proctoring-related recordings of each session.

Difficulty securing an uninterrupted exam setting

The two-day exam not only requires a reliable internet connection, but it is also important that the test taker has a quiet, uninterrupted location. With most of California in at least partial lockdown, this meant bar test takers were often forced to find testing space at homes shared with family, friends and pets. Any background noise or movement could flag a concern to the remote proctoring system and put the test takers results at jeopardy. This heightened the importance of ensuring access to a dedicated and distraction-free test-taking space for the two-day test.

Western State has always prided itself on supporting its students through the bar and this year was no different. Under normal circumstances, the bar exam is administered at rented convention centers and hotel conference centers, with hundreds of test takers sitting together in large rooms populated with in-person proctors and reliable internet connections.

Because these large testing environments were not a possibility due to social distancing guidelines, and many test takers were challenged to find appropriate quiet testing space at home, Western State worked with the state bar to find a solution. Because Western State’s classes were all offered online due to the pandemic, it was able to utilize its classrooms, study rooms and faculty and staff offices to provide students lacking a suitable testing environment secure and quiet places to take the exam.

Per state bar requirements each student was assigned a separate room because the remote proctoring software would register flags due to background noise if multiple takers were in the same room.  Each test taker was screened upon entry for COVID and directed to their assigned room to take their exam. Western State also had a dedicated bar support team that remained in constant communication with prospective test takers to provide assistance and guidance as they navigated the process and prepared for the exam.

As COVID-19 persists in the U.S., it is important that law schools continue to prepare and support their students through future remote exams, including the February 2021 bar. We don’t know what will happen in the months to come, but having contingency plans and working with the state bar in advance can help identify solutions that better support bar takers.

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