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Bar Examination During the Unprecedented Time of COVID


Bar Examination During the Unprecedented Time of COVID

By: Chief Justice Anne M. Burke

February 22, 2021

Happy New Year! Now that COVID vaccinations have begun to be administered, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the 2020 pandemic tunnel. I know we all are looking to 2021with great hope and anticipation that it will be the year that we become COVID-free and can return to living our lives in a more normal fashion.

As Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, it is my pleasure to connect with the judicial system through the Courts Connect newsletter every other month. On these occasions, it has been my custom to invite someone of prominence in our legal system to provide information to you on a subject of timely interest. For this month’s edition, I have invited Nancy Vincent, Administrative Director for the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, to be my guest contributor.

As you know, anyone wishing to obtain a license to practice law in Illinois must apply for admission to the bar through the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, which is an agency of the Supreme Court of Illinois. The Board of Admissions consists of seven members of the bar appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to oversee the administration of all aspects of bar admissions in the state, primarily the semi-annual administration of the bar examination.

Before I turn the column over to Director Vincent, I want to take this opportunity to thank her and her staff for all the work they have done and continue to do to ensure that candidates for admission to the Illinois bar are both competent and qualified to practice law. It is important work and we are grateful for their dedicated service.

Bar Examination During this Unprecedented Time of COVID

By Nancy Vincent, Administrative Director, Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar

The Illinois Supreme Court is charged with the duty to license attorneys and assure public protection from attorneys that are not minimally competent to practice. The bar exam is a critical step in determining minimum competence and has been for decades. The National Conference of Bar Examiners found that almost 80% of Americans believe that attorneys should be required to pass a comprehensive licensing exam before they officially practice law.

The pandemic created challenges to assuring minimum competence via the bar examination. Some states were able to administer an in-person exam in July or September, as they had fewer applicants and more space to safely distance applicants and staff. For jurisdictions with thousands of applicants, however, that was simply not an option as it was not possible to find sufficient space to test thousands of applicants. Jurisdictions like Illinois were placed in the position of postponing the July administration of the bar exam, and then the September exam, once it became clear that the pandemic was unabated. 

A handful of jurisdictions (Utah, Washington state, Oregon, Louisiana and the District of Columbia) granted emergency diploma privilege under limited circumstances. Many jurisdictions, including Illinois, granted some form of an expanded student practice rule, thereby allowing graduates to practice law under the supervision of licensed attorneys and bypassing the bar exam.

Most jurisdictions in the United States are jurisdictions that give the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE). That exam, produced by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), is the same exam administered in each of those jurisdictions and consists of the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The MPT is two questions related to testing analysis and writing skills, the MEE is six essay questions, and the MBE is 200 multiple choice questions. Since the legal profession requires a license, a key advantage to the UBE for applicants is the transferability of a bar exam score to other UBE jurisdictions, thus allowing applicants multiple licenses and better job opportunities.

The bar examination across the United States had, up to that point, been administered in person and on specific dates in February and July of every year. The pandemic and the resultant inability to test in large gatherings, such as those required by the bar examination, created the need for a new kind of test. NCBE created electronic testing material and an online delivery protocol. The bar examination had never been administered either online or remotely, and now there was the opportunity to do both. Illinois became one of the jurisdictions that selected that option, despite the unknowns. That exam was scheduled for October 5-6, 2020.

The first iteration of the online, remote bar exam consisted of all three parts of what is administered with the UBE. However, the number of questions in the exam was reduced by half. For that reason, it was not administered as a UBE and was not a UBE transferrable score. 
The first hurdle was the technology of the exam. One company was able to produce an exam that could be delivered remotely, and thus ExamSoft was selected as the provider of the online exam platform. The jurisdictions, NCBE, and ExamSoft worked together to coordinate the exam in a very short time frame. The change in the format of the exam created many new issues surrounding administration and accommodations, all of which required quick solutions.

In the weeks and days preceding the exam, ExamSoft reported receiving thousands of support calls. Given the fact there were about 30,000 people across the country registered for the October bar exam, this was to be expected. It did, understandably, create concerns with applicants. On the first day of the exam, many test-takers reported to have attempted to call ExamSoft multiple times during the exam, only to be placed on hold for long periods. This in turn decreased their allotted timeframe to complete the test, forcing many to hang up with their issues unresolved. However, the vast majority of applicants were able to use the software platform successfully. To their credit, the applicants adjusted to the adversities presented and were able to successfully complete the exam. The law schools were crucial assistants during this process, helping their students navigate this new exam and offering technological support.

The pass rate for the October 2020 exam, after equating, was 75%. This represented an increase of four percentage points over the pass rate in July 2019, an encouraging sign for the efforts from the applicants and from the law schools.  

Another feature of the online exam from October was the formation of reciprocity agreements among the jurisdictions offering the remote exam.  Applicants with passing scores as defined by those jurisdictions could apply for admission with a transferred October 2020 score. While not a UBE score, this offered some flexibility to applicants who were faced with a remote exam administration.

Going forward, the February 2021 exam is being offered to jurisdictions both in person and online. Illinois will administer the exam online, and for this administration it will be a full UBE exam with the transferability of that score. More jurisdictions have opted to administer the exam online in this exam cycle, considering the ongoing nature of the pandemic and the relative success of the online exam. As NCBE, ExamSoft, and the jurisdictions work to resolve issues from the October administration and improve the exam platform and delivery, the Court, practitioners, applicants, and the public can be assured that the bar exam will work as intended, even during these challenging times.