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Recent Law Graduates To Take Iowa Bar Exam In-person, Despite Coronavirus Concerns

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John Pemble
/
Iowa Public Radio
States across the country are moving their bar exams online, or temporarily waiving the requirement to pass the exam. Requests to do the same in Iowa have been denied.

The Iowa Supreme Court has denied requests from law professors and students to make changes to the upcoming bar exam. Next week, more than 170 recent law school graduates are slated to take the exam in-person in a Des Moines hotel, despite concerns about the coronavirus.

If all goes as planned, on July 28-29, some 171 recent law school graduates will file in, clad in cloth face masks and armed with hand sanitizer, to take the notoriously difficult, hours-long exam that will determine whether they can practice law.

They'll be seated at tables at least 6 feet apart, scattered across two rooms measuring some 20,000 square feet, their temperatures taken and having attested they have no symptoms of COVID-19. Iowa Supreme Court justices say they feel confident the recent graduates can safely take the exam, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

"If you believe what the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health tell us about COVID-19, you would not go sit in that room."
- opinion piece penned by five University of Iowa law professors

Even with precautionary measures in place, some recent graduates, law professors and lawyers fear taking the exam in-person over two, eight-hour days presents a public health risk.

“If you believe what the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Iowa Department of Public Health tell us about COVID-19, you would not go sit in that room,” wrote five University of Iowa law professors wrote in a recent opinion piece.

While examinees will have to sign a form confirming their temperature, lack of symptoms and lack of recent positive test result, recent University of Iowa Law School Graduate Karla Olivas says she’s still not confident the setting will be safe.

“Just the thought of having to go and sit in a room with dozens of other people who are coming from all across the states is really scary. Because you don't know if they've been taking the same precautions that you have all summer long,” Olivas said.

While it is technically an option for recent graduates to postpone taking the exam until next February, recent University of Iowa law school graduate Emily Schott says the prospect is unlikely because of the financial commitments many face, after accruing three years worth of student loans.

Leases, loan payments and job offers hang in the balance, she says, adding that she and her colleagues are highly motivated to get work, especially those whose family members have lost jobs during the economic crisis.

"Just the thought of having to go and sit in a room with dozens of other people who are coming from all across the states is really scary. Because you don't know if they've been taking the same precautions that you have all summer long."
- Karla Olivas, recent University of Iowa Law School graduate

“Postponing the exam, you know, is a theoretical option, but it is not a practical one for us,” Schott said. “So when you say what would that look like? The truth is, I have genuinely…if I couldn't get barred, I don't know what I would do.”

Schott, Olivas and their colleagues penned a petition to the state Supreme Court, signed by more than 500 people, urging the justices to temporarily waive the requirement to pass the bar, granting what are called diploma privileges, as other states have done due to coronavirus concerns.

Other states have opted to conduct the exams online, delay them, or even cancel them outright, leaving recent graduates in those jurisdictions in limbo.

Ultimately, Iowa’s Supreme Court justices declined to make further changes, deciding in consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health that the exam could be conducted safely as scheduled, in-person.

“We can assure you that reasonable and appropriate safety protocols are in place, carefully developed in consultation with public health officials and in accord with CDC guidelines,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote in an email to the petitioners, on behalf of all the justices.

In regards to diploma privileges, Waterman said that even during a global pandemic, passing the bar remains an important metric for the profession.

“We can assure you that reasonable and appropriate safety protocols are in place, carefully developed in consultation with public health officials and in accord with CDC guidelines."
- Justice Thomas Waterman, Iowa Supreme Court

“After three rigorous years of law school, studying for the bar exam is an important final step to becoming an Iowa lawyer. Iowans deserve high quality legal representation. As the petition points out, most applicants pass the bar exam, and we expect that will occur again this year. However, the bar exam serves an important purpose in identifying those applicants who may not be ready to practice,” Waterman wrote.

The decision to deny requests to change the bar exam was disappointing, if not surprising, for Torey Cuellar, the president of the Young Lawyers Division of the Iowa State Bar Association, which advocated on behalf of the petitioners.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the ISBA supported granting diploma privileges to graduates. Cuellar had hoped that the court would waive the usual requirements, noting the additional pressures this class of students has faced due to the pandemic.

“Studying for the bar exam is stressful as it is. It’s an exam that determines whether you can be licensed in the state of Iowa to practice law,” Cuellar said. If diploma privileges won’t be granted, she added, “we want it to be as safe as possible and we want it to be as expeditious as possible.”

While it seems too late to make further changes to next week’s bar exam, recent graduates remain hopeful that additional steps will be taken to protect the health and safety of those slated to sit the bar next February.