Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Aspiring attorneys must ‘assume risk’ of COVID-19 at bar exam
With a week to go before the Wisconsin bar exam, those registered to sit for the two-day test in Madison aren’t just cramming, they’re worried about getting sick.
Recently, people registered for the exam received waivers they must sign as they enter the testing site asserting they are free of COVID-19 or symptoms, haven’t been exposed in the past 14 days to someone who has tested positive for the disease and are knowingly assuming the risk of exposure to coronavirus by taking the exam.
Taylor Soule, 27, graduated from the University of Iowa’s law school in May and just moved to Wausau, where she hopes to start her new job as an assistant public defender in the fall and continues prepping for the exam.
“I’m pretty frustrated and scared at the thought it could be canceled or postponed at the last minute,” Soule said, noting Kentucky just canceled on July 9.
As someone with an autoimmune disease, she’s also a bit fearful of taking the exam among up to 150 other people, saying she might not react like a healthier 27-year-old exposed to the coronavirus.
“It’s ridiculous we’re being expected to take the exam in person during a pandemic,” she said. “People might have kids at home or care for elderly parents. It just seems short-sighted of people’s different life considerations.”
As of July 20, Wisconsin was just one of five states that hasn’t canceled, shifted online, listed a fall backup date or postponed this July’s bar exam, or adopted or expanded some provisional licensing rules, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twitter has been filled with news of the changes and prospective lawyers’ angst over delaying the start of the paid work (usually dependent on passing the bar exam) and risking their health or both.
Last month, the Supreme Court announced the exam would be given as scheduled July 28 and 29 in Madison, against the advice of the Board of Bar Examiners, which administers the test, that it be rescheduled.
Several states had earlier canceled their July exams and rescheduled them at later dates this year, or offered graduates of accredited law schools admission to practice by “diploma privilege,” without taking the state’s exam.
Wisconsin is the only state where diploma privilege is the norm, but only for graduates of its two law schools, at Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In April, some state residents who graduated law school at the University of Minnesota this year petitioned the Supreme Court to expand the privilege this year, in case the exam was canceled and they couldn’t be admitted to practice and start their Wisconsin lawyer jobs.
The bar admissions would be conditional until the young lawyers completed 360 hours of supervised work and some coursework on Wisconsin-specific law.
When the court said the exam would definitely happen, they dismissed the graduates’ petition as moot.
Applicants will encounter several special conditions at the exam. They
must all wear masks at all times. Their temperature will be checked before they enter at staggered times and will sit at their own tables, six feet apart.
A reading of 100.4 degrees or higher means you can’t sit for the exam, which will be held at the Madison Marriott West in Middleton.
If an examinee develops symptoms during the exam they will have to leave.
James Joling, 25, of Kenosha, graduated in May from Michigan State University College of Law, and has been weighing his career and his health ever since.
“The second my law school went online, I started thinking about the bar exam,” he said, wondering if it could happen if the pandemic hadn’t been quelled by then. “There was no clarity until after people had already started bar prep,” in mid-May, he said, referring to the cram courses most applicants take in the several weeks leading up to the exam.
He has already started his job with Racine law firm — working as a paralegal until he passes the bar exam. He’s already thinking like a lawyer though; he said the liability waiver applicants must sign before sitting for the exam seem contrary to state law and probably isn’t enforceable if a test taker were to contract COVID-19, become ill and sue.
Joling doesn’t see why the Supreme Court didn’t agree to extend diploma privilege in Wisconsin this year, but would rather take the exam than wait months to become licensed and start working, and earning, as a lawyer. While he knows there’s no way to assure protection in a large indoor gathering, he feels safe enough with the restrictions in place.
“But I’m afraid I won’t be as focused as I would if I were taking the exam without the pandemic,” Joling said. “What if I cough? Are they going to dismiss me?”