Law grads ‘left hanging’ after Bar exam called off

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After moving the test online because of COVID-19, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has called off a plan to hold the Bar exam on Wednesday because it was not “technically feasible.”

The board announced late Sunday that the exam will take place “on a date to be determined in October.” Applicants who signed up for the exam, originally slated to be in person in late July, can also wait until February to take the test, the announcement said.

The last-minute cancellation, issued on the eve of a scheduled live trial of the examination software, ignited a frenzy on social media among people planning to take the exam and their supporters, who have urged the Board of Bar Examiners to drop the test altogether this year or to replace the multiple-choice exam with essays submitted by email, as some other states have done amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It just devastated me,” Theresa Black, who earlier this year had signed up to take the in-person test, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.

Black, a graduate of the Loyola University New Orleans law school who lives in Alabama but wants to move back to Florida, called the board’s last-minute move “negligence at its finest.”

“Now, we don’t even know what date the exam is going to be. We’re just left hanging and hanging and hanging,” she said.

The board’s July 1 decision to hold the exam online came after an outcry from graduates, law school professors and legislators, who argued that holding the test in person was contrary to health officials’ social-distancing recommendations and posed a danger to test-takers with underlying medical conditions who have a higher risk of complications from the virus.

But the board’s rules for the online exam and technical problems with the ILG Technologies software used for the test sparked a furor among prospective test-takers and their advocates, including the deans of 10 Florida law schools.

The college leaders last week asked the Florida Supreme Court and the board to adopt a “contingency plan” that would allow an open-book exam and essay questions submitted by email. The Supreme Court has authority over the board.

The law-school deans, including deans of schools at Florida State University, Stetson University and the University of Miami, also urged the board to “examine critically” the use of the multiple-choice exam, “and to consider whether it can be administered at all if the ILG software is deemed to be unworkable.”

“Announcing this sort of contingency plan in advance will inspire confidence among applicants that the examination will proceed in some form, unhindered by technological obstacles. It also will help lessen the understandable stress and anxiety of our graduates, who will welcome (and deserve) the additional clarity and reassurance,” the deans wrote on Friday.

Sunday’s announcement came after the board scrapped two previous versions of the ILG software after applicants “identified issues of concern.” The latest version was slated to undergo a live trial on Monday.

“Despite the board’s best efforts to offer a licensure opportunity in August, it was determined that administering a secure and reliable remote bar examination in August was not technically feasible,” the board’s announcement said.

Black and other law-school graduates who installed the software on their laptops said it caused problems such as overheating, malware and response lags.

With the test already an anxiety-producing event, the shifting dates, modifications of rules and the sense of limbo created by the delay has put many law-school graduates — especially those who had been promised jobs, once they passed the exam — on edge for weeks.

“We will be dealing with this for 2 more months. I have watched my classmates crowdfund utilities to pay for their apartment. People had to buy new computers. This is Hell,” University of Miami law school graduate Johnny Carver wrote in a Twitter post early Monday morning.

Potential test takers will have to study for two more months “on their 2nd exam delay and 6th format change,” Carver wrote, adding that many graduates will lose health insurance from their law schools and will miss out on employment offers.

“Credible suicidal thoughts reported,” he tweeted.

To help offset the exam postponement, the board created a “supervised practice program” that is similar to an existing “Certified Legal Intern” program. The new program will “allow for practice with supervision by a member of The Florida Bar,” Sunday’s announcement said.

The program will begin in mid-September, when grades would have been released for the July test, the board noted.

“Details regarding eligibility and rules for participation will be announced once they are finalized,” the announcement said.

But the supervisory program isn’t the equivalent of being a full-fledged lawyer, critics of the board’s decisions maintain.

Tallahassee lawyer G.C. Murray II scolded the board on social media late Sunday night.

“It seems clear to me that the Florida Board of Bar Examiners (#FBBE) never had an adequate secondary (or tertiary) plan in place,” Murray, CEO of the firm Association G.C., wrote in a Facebook post. “This is a failure of foresight, transparency, and execution at the highest levels of the #FBBE and I hope that members of The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division ask the Court to conduct a thorough review into the actions of the executive leadership team at the #FBBE.”

The wrangling over the exam has fueled intense criticism on both sides on social media.

Some advocates have faced backlash for suggesting that the exam should be waived this year. Critics accuse the law-school graduates of using COVID-19 to skip out of taking the test.

But Black, who has an autoimmune disorder, dismissed such accusations.

“I don’t think this is a pass. Nobody has had to study under these conditions. The amount of stress, just COVID alone. You can’t leave the house. The children are running around. The libraries are closed. The schools are closed,” she said. “The biggest problem with the delay is my family wants me back. I feel heartbroken.”

Law school grads protest

Prospective attorneys who have been studying and racking up debt for years protested Wednesday in front of the Florida Supreme Court, demanding action.

As late as Sunday, FIU Law graduate Michael Ellis was expecting Wednesday would be the day he would cross his last hurdle to becoming a lawyer.

“I should be, I think, on a lunch break right now,” said Ellis.

But late Sunday night, he got the news the Bar exam would be delayed until October.

“I believe the term was ‘technical difficulties.’ And that’s it,” said Ellis.

This is the third time the exam has been delayed.

Each day that goes by means more studying and more debt for grads like Kristen Overstreet.

“You put your life on hold. People take out loans to do this exam and study for three or four months. Now these people can’t pay their, what they call ‘Bar loans,’ back,” said Overstreet, who is a graduate of Stetson Law.

A few dozen grads took to the state Supreme Court to make their dissatisfaction known.

“These aren’t subjective criticisms. These are objective failures,” Ellis said to the crowd.

They’re asking for a test to be administered sooner or automatic entry to the Florida Bar for grads based on their school’s success rate on the last examination.

“A different alternative to this exam or somehow just go ahead and take it so we can move on with our lives,” said Overstreet.

More than anything, the protesters said they want more transparency from the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.

“They vow to make us respectful of the time of others, and those commitments are not reciprocated by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners,” said Ellis.

Since the exact date of the October examination is still to be determined, some of the grads are left skeptical it will happen at all.

Capitol News Service reached out to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners for comment but had not heard back as of Wednesday afternoon. However, a statement posted Monday to the Florida Supreme Court’s Facebook page said: “The board remains committed to offering an examination to applicants in 2020 and will reschedule the examination for a date to be determined in October.”

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady apologizes

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady apologized on Wednesday for the postponement of the Florida Bar exam.

The court “deeply regrets this additional delay” in the administration of the exam, Canady said in a video posted on the court’s Facebook and YouTube social media sites.

The cancellation, issued on the eve of a scheduled live trial of the software, ignited a frenzy on social media among people planning to take the exam and their supporters, who have urged the Board of Bar Examiners to drop the test altogether this year or to replace the multiple-choice exam with essays submitted by email, as some other states have done.

“Our inability to offer the Bar examination in August was a failure. We apologize for that failure,” Canady said in Wednesday’s video

In Wednesday’s announcement, Canady said the court understands that “a three-month delay in licensure is a serious matter — a disruption in life that takes a financial toll and an emotional toll.”

The court is “seeking to mitigate the impact” of the delay through a “supervised practice program,” he said, adding “we are keenly aware that this program is a stopgap measure that will provide limited relief to a limited number of applicants.”

Canady’s apology appeared to stoke furor over the delays.

“This does nothing to help us. It reassures that we will continue to be harmed mentally, financially, & professionally,” Johnny Carver, who graduated from the University of Miami School of Law this spring, tweeted on Wednesday.

People slated to take the exam have also complained that the Board of Bar Examiners ignored their concerns, such as technical problems with the ILG Technologies software used for the test.

“We acknowledge and accept the criticism that has been directed at the court and the Board of Bar Examiners,” Canady said. “I can’t guarantee you that the path forward will be flawless, but I can guarantee you that we have learned from this mistake and that it will not be repeated.”

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