Harvard Law School Students Advocate For Licensure Without Bar Exam | New
UPDATE: April 4, 2020, 4:26 p.m.
Nearly 200 third-year Harvard Law School students on Thursday signed a letter to law school administrators asking the school to publicly advocate for an emergency degree privilege – a policy granting students graduate their law degrees without requiring the bar exam.
The letter called on the law school to take four specific actions on behalf of its students. These requests include issuing a public statement supporting emergency diploma privilege across the United States; share the student letter with other law schools; send a statement supporting the privilege to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; and the organization of a virtual town hall for students to discuss their needs with the administration.
Donna C. Saadati-Soto, co-author of the letter, said she thought it would be unfair to ask students to take the multi-day exam this summer, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is limiting the ability of some students to prepare for the coming month.
“I was planning to take the California bar exam which was scheduled to take place in July,” she said. “There is no way people can take an exam administration in July 2020.”
Saadati-Soto said several states have already postponed their reviews in light of the COVID-19 crisis and associated social distancing restrictions. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced Monday that it would postpone its July 28-29 review until an undetermined date in the fall.
But the letter from law school students argues that simply postponing the bar exam will jeopardize the job opportunities and financial security of graduates.
“Most HLS graduates planned to start working with employers from late summer or fall 2020,” it read. “If bar exams continue to be postponed, it is not clear whether students will start working, as planned.”
The letter explains how deferred employment could particularly hurt international students, whose immigration status could be affected by unemployment, as well as first-generation and low-income students.
“For students with limited means, it is unclear how they will support themselves financially and their families if their employment begins at a later date,” the letter said. “For all, it is not clear whether students will have to start repaying their student loans this year.”
Saadati-Soto said students who can get jobs before the postponed exam may have to decide whether to work full-time or study full-time for the exam – a decision she said would eliminate traditionally marginalized students of the legal profession.
“People who don’t have the financial security to just be able to quit their jobs and study for the bar at any time – they might choose to forgo the state bar,” she said. “This means that low-income students, immigrant students, people of color are the most likely to have to forgo taking or studying a subsequent exam because they will have to work to support themselves and their families. “
She also said the legal profession is currently facing a mental health crisis and having to pass the bar exam could make the problem worse by adding unnecessary financial and academic stress amid a global pandemic.
Law School spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement that administrators realized that postponing bar exams in several states had disrupted graduate students’ plans. Neal added that administrators appreciate that the students have taken the initiative and come up with a solution to this problem, and that the school will continue to work with the state to “explore” ways to resolve it.
“Our student services offices are also ready to work one-on-one with our students to help them assess their plans and chart the way forward in light of changing events,” he wrote.
Marilyn J. Wellington, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, declined to comment on the students’ proposal.
The letter from the students also listed additional concerns about the postponed exams, such as uncertainty over the state of the pandemic in the fall.
“Since vaccinations and preventive medical therapies will not be open on the market for at least a year, the potential for another epidemic is only a matter of time,” it read. “A short-sighted decision to simply postpone the July exam, if accompanied by a high likelihood of a subsequent outbreak and resulting further postponement, will deprive Americans of crucial legal assistance in months to come. “
The letter argues that the large number of people affected by COVID-19 demand that as many lawyers as possible enter the workforce to defend struggling small businesses, recently unemployed people and families facing eviction.
He also alleges that the country may need more lawyers to continue to provide criminal defense and advocate for the interests of detained workers and immigrants – a need he says can only be met if college graduates of law are automatically admitted to the bar.
“We cannot ignore the issues of due process and deprivation of personal liberty, even in times of new national crises,” the letter read. “We, the undersigned, call on Harvard Law School to recognize the imminent need for lawyers and to take the most humane, public health conscious and ethical approach. “
“Just as our colleagues in medical schools have been called to join the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, lawyers are also needed to fight for the rights of those most affected by this pandemic,” he concludes.