Susan Smith Blakely

The Dilemma Surrounding the July 2020 Bar Exams

The pandemic has caused a multitude of problems for our world and our country. Some of them involve life and death issues, and, certainly, nothing compares to those. Others involve economic issues like business closings, bankruptsy filings, struggles to feed families and pay the rent and issues surrounding school closings. Still others involve interference with important highly anticipated events involving families and friends, which have had to be cancelled or rescheduled, and the list goes on and on.

Concerns about an entire generation of young people, Generation Z, whose members have experienced gratification postponement and the effects of isolation that are particularly difficult for teenagers on the cusp of defining themselves and their futures. Time away from valued teachers, and supportive coaches and friends is particularly hard for them and can lead to issues of stress and anxiety.

These concerns all are weighty, but there are other bona fide concerns as well that impact particular segments of our society. As a lawyer and writer on issues affecting the legal profession, I am concerned at this time about how the matter of the July 2020 bar exams are being handled. It seems not particularly well. I have read blogs posted by Spring 2020 law school grads, who are having difficulty coping with uncertainties involving when and if the bar exam of their choice will be held and under what circumstances. Unlike some state bar examiners, I do not consider this to be a matter of "the show must go on" and sucking it up. I do not consider these recent grads to be whiners and slackers. No. These are real concerns.

Concerns like not knowing whether the bar exam will be held in just two short weeks or whether the bar examiners will make a decision to cancel --- because the decision is still up in the air. Concerns like not being able to take the bar exam in the jurisdiction where your future law firm/office is located because there is now reduced seating capacity and preference is being given to law graduates from law schools located in the jurisdiction. Think NY. Concerns like having to register for more than one July 2020 bar exam AND pay the fees because of these uncertainties. Concerns like the possibility of waiting until February 2021 to take the bar exam and DO WHAT??? and LIVE ON WHAT??? until then.

These are very real and genuine concerns, and solutions can seem complicated. But I know that, unlike so many of the other results brought on by the pandemic, there is a solution. That solution does not involve life and death, and it is not a matter of economic ruin. It is a matter of common sense and health and safety.

The last time I checked, matters of health and safety override most other matters of law and regulation. During crises, rules have to change. Our country experienced it during WW II and again after 9-11. It did not lead to ruin then, and it would not lead to ruin now. It is not going to be the ruin of the legal profession to give diploma privilege for May 2020 law school graduates. It did not ruin the legal system in my beloved State of Wisconsin, and it will not ruin it anywhere else.

Yes, diploma privilege, which is essentially a waiver of the bar exam, will be heralded as unfair by some practicing lawyers, who suffered through one or more bar exams. Hopefully, it will be pointed out by a more rational majority that such positions are petty and fail to recognize the dire impact of a world-wide pandemic and the need for creative solutions.

I do realize that this position is a bit of a change of heart for me. In a blog on March 25, 2020, I stated, "It seems to me that the option for “emergency diploma privilege-plus” is the best option and could work — with one caveat. I agree that “diploma privilege” might be a good idea to meet the needs of Spring 2020 law graduates to enter the workforce as soon as possible, but I would add the requirement for passage of the February 2021 Bar Exam to that option. That should be a lot more workable than fashioning CLEs and additional requirements to effectively address competency."

Although I still have questions about demonstrations of competency, I now see that kicking the can forward to February 2021 may have the same issues as those plaguing the July 2020 bar exams. So, I say let's cut our losses and move forward with diploma privilege.

If some of the privileged law graduates are not competent to practice, that will be discovered. By them and by others. And it will not be the end of the world. On the contrary, it may be the beginning of a new way of looking at measuring competency in what is fast becoming a very different law profession.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want:  A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight,, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman,, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016” for her work on behalf of women in the law.

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 

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