New graduates from Colorado’s two law schools are raising concerns about potential exposure to COVID-19 during the two-day, in-person bar exam scheduled for the end of July.
They’ve proposed invoking “diploma privilege” as some other states have, meaning University of Colorado and University of Denver law school graduates who applied for the July 2020 bar exam and passed the character and fitness requirements would be licensed to practice law without taking the test.
Oregon, Utah and Washington have granted diploma privilege for law graduates. Some states have postponed the exam until the fall, while others are planning to go through with their summer test dates.
“It’s too dangerous to safely hold the bar exam in July in Colorado,” said Andrew Schulman, a May graduate of DU’s Sturm College of Law. “If it’s held, it’s going to have a widely disproportionate impact for students who are at high risk and people whose jobs are depending on being licensed.”
Notably, Schulman added, DU’s student health insurance plan expires days after the exam.
“At the baseline, we know that the bar favors white people over African-Americans and African-Americans over Latinx people,” Schulman said. “We know COVID-19 is having this disparate impact, too, so there’s this double effect.”
The Colorado Supreme Court last month issued testing guidance, made with the help of state and local public health agencies, designed to keep test takers and proctors safe.
Jessica Yates, attorney regulation counsel for the state’s high court, said updated protocols will be released later this week with more details including the number of people assigned to certain rooms and guidelines test-takers should follow between now and the July 28 and 29 exam.
Testing protocols include:
- Temperature checks and screening questions before entry
- Social distancing during testing
- Recommending attendees forgo indoor restaurants, gyms and large gatherings between now and the exam
- Masks required whenever moving around the testing site, interacting with anyone during the day and, potentially, required while taking the exam
Yates said around 750 people could take the July test, but some may choose to switch to a February option. July test-takers would be spread out among sites at the Denver Mart, DU law school and CU law school.
“The bar exam might not be a perfect instrument of competency, but it does help ensure basic competencies of the licensed attorneys who will be serving the public in all kinds of capacities once licensed,” Yates said. “The individuals who are asking for diploma privilege are not the members of the public who would need these privileges. The individuals who are asking are the individuals who don’t want to take the bar exam.”
Nadiah Bierwirth, a May DU graduate, is one of nearly 1,100 people who have signed a petition to seek alternatives to an in-person exam.
Bierwirth said she’s spent years of law school and thousands of dollars on exam preparation courses waiting for this moment that now seems like a cruel choice between her family and her livelihood.
Bierwirth said she has immunocompromised family members with chronic illnesses and autoimmune diseases who rely on her care.
“Should I go in there, take this exam and risk the life and health of my loved ones in doing so?” Bierwirth said, noting if she waited to take the exam in February, she wouldn’t have the means to support herself. “I will be forced to do it. It’s so hard.”
In a joint statement, James Anaya and Bruce Smith, the deans of the CU and DU law schools, respectively, said they’ve been working closely with Colorado bar authorities to identify “safe, fair and expeditious pathways” for legal licensure.
The deans said they have recently shared the concerns of their graduates with bar authorities and explored an adjustment to the July exam’s passing score as well as enacting a temporary diploma privilege option.
“Throughout, we have highlighted the unprecedented challenges faced by this summer’s bar-takers — and the fact that those challenges are borne differentially, depending on personal circumstances,” Anaya and Smith said in their statement. “We are confident that we have articulated in a clear and compelling manner the range of considerations affecting our graduates. We are equally confident that the state bar authorities will duly take into consideration the concerns we have expressed, with the ultimate decision relating to legal licensure residing with them.”
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