Upcoming Texas bar exam has law students, deans asking for in-person testing to be scrapped

The Texas Supreme Court on Jan. 15, 2020. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

In late July, more than 1,000 aspiring Texas lawyers are expected to troop into meeting rooms across the state to sit for two days of grueling exams that determine whether they will be licensed to practice.

The prospect of sitting alongside hundreds of other students at the NRG Center in Houston unsettles Claire Cahoon, a 25-year-old who's spent the last three years at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. Houston is one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots, and the NRG complex is also home to a standby emergency coronavirus medical shelter.

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“I’m absolutely terrified,” she said. “There's no one here to take care of me. I just can't even imagine.”

The state Board of Law Examiners, which administers the test, says it will provide masks, keep students well away from each other and perform temperature checks during the exams scheduled for July 28 and 29 in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Lubbock and Waco.

But with the coronavirus raging, the planned safety measures "no longer seem sufficient," the deans of all 10 Texas law schools wrote in a recent letter to the examining board.

The deans, along with some students and others in the legal community are pleading with the board and Texas Supreme Court — which has ultimate say over the test — to cancel or postpone the in-person examinations.

They suggest instead moving the exam online, offering legal apprenticeships in lieu of an exam or extending diploma privilege — a once-common practice that allows law school graduates to be admitted to the bar without taking the exam.

“There is unlikely to be a guarantee that these exams can be held as planned, leaving our students (who are near the finish line of their preparations) with ongoing uncertainty,” the deans' letter said.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order last Tuesday granted local officials the authority to restrict outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, but left the door open for large indoor gatherings, including the Texas GOP convention, multiple high school athletics conferences and the bar exam.

Approximately 2,400 candidates signed up to take the July test, although about half have since switched to testing set for September, according to Susan Henricks, executive director of the Board of Law Examiners.

The examining board is letting its own employees opt out from staffing the July exam. “Because of the health risk, no staff will be required to work,” the group’s May 22 meeting minutes read.

Many students are eager to get their licenses so they can begin work, or hunt for jobs in an uncertain economy. Michael Barry, dean of South Texas College of Law Houston, said the state's high court needs to pick an alternative plan so students can have some certainty about their futures.

“As deans, what we’re asking is for the BLE and court to recognize that there are no perfect solutions,” he said. “But we need an approach that will be better for students and for the public.”

Members of the graduating classes of the University of Texas School of Law, the SMU Dedman School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center have also joined in on calls for the examining board and Supreme Court to consider alternatives to the in-person July bar exam.

Meanwhile, a group of law students called Future Texas Attorneys has gathered more than 2,200 signatures on a petition asking the court to grant diploma privilege to law students so they can get on with their careers.

July bar exam candidates face a twofold dilemma: the health risks of taking the exam in-person, and knowing any delay may cost them jobs or create professional challenges down the road.

Anastasia Bolshakov, a recent graduate from the University of Houston Law Center who is slated to take the July exam, said she worries about her financial stability if she has to wait to take the next scheduled test. She says she needs to start working again, pay off law school loans and find a new health insurance provider in the fall.

“I specifically budgeted my whole summer to take this July bar,” Bolshakov said. “None of us are working right now. We have no income. The money we had in May, that's been slowly depleting.”

Matthew Hines, another July bar exam candidate, said COVID-19 is all he can think about while he studies for the exam every day.

“It's been in the front of my mind,” he said. “Ever since I began studying, I know I'm gonna have to take this test, I have to do it in a way that makes me personally uncomfortable.”

Both Hines and Bolshakov have jobs lined up, but if they are unable to take the July exam or it gets pushed back to a later date, they risk losing income and might have to repeat the expensive, 10-week process of studying for the exam.

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the exam's status Thursday, the Austin-American Statesman reported Tuesday.

The examining board had planned to hold a Zoom meeting Wednesday morning to draw up recommendations to the high court, but it was rescheduled after exceeding its 300-person capacity.

“Because we are currently unable to accommodate all public attendees, we will need to reschedule this meeting,” the board wrote on Zoom. “A new meeting will be posted with the secretary of state.”

Cahoon said she hopes the court will take action to protect her and her fellow law school graduates and provide an alternative to the in-person exam.

“We really, really hope and frankly need the bar examiners and the Texas Supreme Court to do something here to step in on our behalf, because it’s life versus licensure and I don't think that's fair to make us pick,” she said.

Raga Justin and Emma Platoff contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.