Utah may let law school grads skip the bar exam because of the coronavirus

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Recent law school graduates may be able to become licensed lawyers in Utah without having to pass the bar exam. The move is being cheered by the law schools, but some in the state’s legal community question this proposal, arguing that the big test helps weed out those who shouldn’t be in the profession.

With the coronavirus in mind, the Utah Supreme Court has proposed allowing those students who were planning to take the July bar exam to just get to work — since there’s no guarantee it will be safe for students to gather for the exam. The court said in a statement that it can’t predict when it might be able to offer the bar again, which would leave these new graduates in limbo.

“This creates hardship, risk, and uncertainty for a range of individuals and organizations,” a statement reads, “for law school graduates whose professional plans and future livelihood depend on receiving a license to practice law, for the public and private entities who have factored these graduates into their plans, and for the clients these new law graduates could serve at this crucial time.”

The state’s high court is proposing that students who have applied to become members of the Utah Bar can become practicing lawyers if they graduate from an established law school and are supervised by a licensed attorney for a period of time.

The justices noted that some states have considered a “diploma privilege” model during the COVID-19 pandemic, but said they wanted to add a requirement of a lawyer’s supervision as a way of “assuring the public” that the newly-licensed lawyers are competent.

“This will open a new path for bar licensure for a limited group of applicants to the Utah Bar at this difficult time,” the statement reads. “Some applicants will not qualify. Others may prefer to await the time when we will be able to offer the bar examination. For any and all who fall into these categories, we commit to providing the bar examination at the earliest date at which it can be safely offered.”

Law school deans at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University say they support the proposed change.

“This is a historic order to address a historical crisis,” said BYU Law Dean Gordon Smith. “We applaud the Utah Supreme Court’s decision to be the first in the nation to address this global pandemic with such fortitude and creativity.”

The Utah Supreme Court is accepting public comment through April 16 before making a final vote. In the past two days, there’s already been 46 people who have left comments about the proposed change — many of whom are lawyers opposed to letting the 2020 graduating class practice without requiring that they eventually take the bar.

“Just postpone the exam,” one wrote. “There are dues that all new attorneys must pay, and the test is one of them. It is a necessary weed out procedure (knowledge and stress test) and a right of passage.”