“The exam is four weeks away. It is time to hunker down and study.” 

This is how Campbell School of Law dean Rich Leonard replied on Facebook to Britni Prybol, a new graduate who had expressed concern over plans to move forward with the state bar exam July 28 and 29. 

In any other year, Leonard’s advice would be standard. The state bar exam takes place twice a year and is the culmination of three years of study. It’s the only way to become a licensed attorney in the state. 

But 2020 isn’t just any year. A large indoor gathering of hundreds is incongruent with Governor Cooper’s phase 2 mandate, which bans indoor gatherings of more than 10. With exceptions for those with documented medical conditions, about 700 applicants will be split between two testing locations in Raleigh, where graduates will be spaced out during the exam.

Some law school graduates are balking at the prospect of traveling from far corners of the state to sit in a room with hundreds of others for two consecutive six-hour days, potentially exposing themselves and others to COVID-19. As of July 6, North Carolina has the 12th-highest number of cases in the country, and it’s the only hotspot that hasn’t modified its bar exam procedures.

And so, North Carolina graduates are hunkering down to study. It’s not easy. 

Taking the bar is grueling work under any circumstances. It costs thousands of dollars in fees and preparation materials—a barrier to access for many—and requires an average of 350–500 hours of study. 

The pandemic has introduced new variables, like vulnerable family members, partners without work, or a lack of childcare. Prybol is a breast-cancer survivor who has been balancing studying for the bar and advocating for safer conditions with caring for her seven-year-old and monthly hormonal chemotherapy sessions at Duke. 

Kimberly Herrick, chair of the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners (NCBLE), says that the board is taking safety precautions, including asking test-takers to wear masks and providing special accommodation for the immunocompromised, such as Prybol, who received permission to take the test in a separate room. 

“We have had a few people that are immunocompromised that have asked for a special accommodation and, to my knowledge, there have been no requests that have not been granted,” Herrick says. 

Such accommodations extend to those with documented medical conditions, but not those caring for vulnerable family members. Adam Rodrigues, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law, has spent the past two months studying while trying to care for his 14-month-old twins at home. Rodrigues has accepted a job doing post-conviction work that would begin in August.

It’s exactly the kind of work that made him pursue a law degree, but it requires a license. But protecting his family, he says, is a paramount concern. 

“We’re in an unprecedented time,” Rodrigues says. “Our profession is built on creative problem-solving, and we feel there are other ways to solve this that don’t require us to be physically around people who may transfer the virus and then have to come back to our families.”

On July 6, more than 200 bar examinees and graduates in North Carolina submitted a letter to the NCBLE and Governor Cooper’s office asking the board to “take greater measures to address the serious threat that we, our families, and the general public face as a result of the current plan for the administration of the 2020 North Carolina bar exam.” 

The letter also recognized that for “Black, Latinx, and Native American test takers, these burdens may be magnified by social disparities and structural racism.” 

Many students are pushing back against the NCBLE. But of the students that we contacted, several canceled interviews or asked not to be quoted for fear of endangering their job prospects or their chance at passing the character-and-fitness portion of the exam. 

The letter was also signed by law students across the country, reflecting the demands that are being made nationally as states reckon with the best way to administer a test that holds the future of thousands in the balance. 

Already, 20 states have introduced alterations, including moving the exam online or adding more testing locations. Just last week, Texas rescheduled the bar for September under pressure from students and law school deans, with a built-in option to take it online in October. 

Utah, Washington, and Oregon have elected for diploma privilege—which allows law school graduates to be licensed without sitting for the bar or receive temporary licensure until it’s safer to take the exam—while nine other states have opted for an online option. 

While there’s no single solution that represents the interest of every exam-taker in North Carolina, there is consensus that the current plan is risky, even with masks. 

As if to add insult to injury, graduates will have to sign a waiver assuming the risk if taking the exam should “result in personal injury, illness, permanent disability, and death.” For those who don’t feel comfortable assuming that liability, the NCBLE will waive the $1,250 fee for the February bar. 

Deferring six months is not easy, however, for hundreds of graduates who need to practice law to pay off their student debt.

“It’s really intense, and it’s stressful particularly because you’re thinking in your head, ‘These three years that I spent could be practically worthless if I don’t pass this exam,’” Rodrigues says. 

Faculty across the state have backed students. Another letter circulating is signed by law faculty and legal professionals urging the NCBLE to reconsider its rigid stance. 

“Take this test in a couple weeks under conditions that may not be ideal or wait until February when you don’t know what the conditions will be like—and in the interim, you can’t work,” says Rachel Gurvich, who teaches law at UNC-Chapel Hill, summarizing the dilemma students face. “Those seem like a set of bad choices.” 

Follow Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to sedwards@indyweek.com

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