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Illinois Bar Exam Being Held Online — But That Could Disadvantage Some Would-Be Lawyers, Graduates Say

A group of law school graduates are advocating for an alternative to the bar exam, which is scheduled to take place remotely in October.

File photo. A group of law school graduates are advocating for an alternative to the bar exam, which is scheduled to take place in-person in September.
Roxanne Minnish/Pexels
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

CHICAGO — Law school graduates no longer have to take the bar exam in person during the pandemic to practice law in Illinois — but they are already worried about the state’s plans to instead hold a remote test.

The Illinois Supreme Court announced Thursday it was canceling the in-person bar exam scheduled for Sept. 9-10 after weeks of graduates lobbying for a change due to the pandemic. Graduates had worried it would be unsafe to take the in-person, two-day exam, but were also concerned that if they skipped it they’d have to wait until the next test in February and could lose job offers.

The announcement means an online bar exam will now be held Oct. 5-6 — but graduates have concerns about that, too.

“It’s sort of raised a whole host of new questions,” said Zoe Uvin, a 2020 graduate of the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University.

Uvin said the test results will not be transferable to other states, and the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar — which organizes the exam — hasn’t announced what a passing score will be.

But the exam is only held twice a year, meaning graduates must take it in October or wait months for the next one. During that time, they fear, companies could take back their job offers.

“As it gets pushed … it really becomes a test of financial endurance and how long you can go without finding work,” Uvin said.

In June, three students drafted a petition to the Illinois Supreme Court, asking to have the exam waived and for the court to amend the rules for admission to the bar by allowing for diploma privilege for anyone who signed up to take the bar in September. They collected 1,389 signatures.

Diploma privilege essentially admits law school graduates to the state bar association without having to take the bar exam. Some states — including Washington, Utah and Oregon — have granted this privilege to graduates amid the pandemic.

The Illinois Supreme Court denied the petition without explaining its reason, giving the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar the go-ahead for its plans to host an exam in September.

Those plans changed Thursday when the court announced the exam would be held remotely.

Graduates have worries about that, too: They said remote exams come with equity issues because would-be lawyers don’t have equal access to WiFi or a quiet place for long periods of time.

“By making it a remote option … it becomes no longer a test of minimal competency. It becomes a test of if you have sufficient WiFi and a quiet place to take the test for two days,” said Anabel Abarca, a 2020 graduate of Loyola University School of Law. 

The rules for the in-person bar exam already are strict, and restrictions for a remote exam in Illinois could make the test overly burdensome, graduates said.

The Illinois Board of Admissions’ announcement didn’t say what the rules for its remote exam would be, instead saying it will “notify applicants by mail regarding details of the exam.”

“We’ve seen some jurisdictions put out some pretty hard and fast rules,” Uvin said. “Things like, if someone enters the room you’re taking the test in, you’ll fail. If there’s a pet in the room, you’ll fail. If you leave the view of your webcam during unscheduled breaks, you’ll fail.”

The board of admissions did not respond to requests for comment.

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