The University of Maine School of Law will be one of the sites for the state’s next bar exam, which was postponed from July to late September because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some states have moved their bar exams online this year, while others have granted temporary diploma privilege in lieu of the exam. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine’s top court has denied two requests to allow recent law school graduates to practice without taking this year’s bar exam, which was postponed by two months because of the pandemic.

The Maine Board of Bar Examiners also has resisted pressure to move the exam to an online format, which is endorsed by the American Bar Association but has proved controversial in other states.

Meanwhile, the delay has created stress for recent graduates and impacted the start of their legal careers in a state with a shortage of attorneys in rural areas.

“We know that during this pandemic and especially after, we’re going to see more family issues,” said Andrew McLean, who graduated from the University of Maine School of Law this year. “We’re going to see more evictions. We’re going to see more landlord-tenant issues. We’re going to see employment issues and a whole host of others. We’re going to see a real increase in demand for representation and for advocates in our legal system. We really need lawyers to get out there as quickly as possible.”

The bar exam is a necessary hurdle for attorneys who want to practice law in court. Typically, the exam takes place over two days twice a year, in February and July. The pandemic forced states to reconsider their plans for the usual summer exam.

Two dozen states administered the exam in person last month, although some added alternative test dates in September or October. The Colorado Sun reported that a woman tested positive for COVID-19 just days after she took the exam with about 20 other people, who were told to quarantine and get tested.

Some states have postponed the test to the fall, and others are planning to move it online. But students have raised concerns about access to technology or reliable internet. The Detroit Free Press reported that the Michigan bar exam crashed during the virtual exam last month because of a hacking attempt, adding to the doubts about using an online platform.

Across the country, law school graduates have petitioned for diploma privilege, which would allow them to fully practice law without taking the exam. The National Conference of Bar Examiners has reported that four states – Utah, Washington, Oregon and Louisiana – have granted diploma privilege in some form. Wisconsin already allowed for that option. At least 13 states have denied similar requests or petitions.

In April, recent graduates from the University of Maine School of Law wrote to the state Supreme Judicial Court and Board of Bar Examiners, urging both bodies to consider diploma privilege here as well. More than 70 people signed the letter.

“The vast global impact of the COVID-19 has reached down to affect even the most trivial aspects of everyday life,” the letter said. “However, we believe that our employment offers, and ultimately the future of our legal careers, need not necessarily be among them.”

The law school reported that 70 graduates took the bar exam for the first time in any jurisdiction in the United States last year. Forty-one people, nearly 60 percent, passed the exam.

Based on that history and the number of graduates who traditionally stay in Maine, the letter writers said the number of their classmates who would be admitted to the Maine bar without taking the exam this year would not be substantially different from years past. They also warned that more graduates would leave Maine to practice elsewhere if the state did not adopt diploma privilege.

Longtime Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley left that position April 14 to become dean of the law school. The next day, the court rescheduled the July bar exam to the end of September because of the pandemic.

After that announcement, the law school submitted a proposal for provisional licensing, which would have allowed recent graduates to start practicing law under the supervision of a more experienced attorney. The graduates would have been required to eventually take the bar exam, and the proposal suggested that the provisional licenses would expire as early as November 2021.

The law school does not have any direct control over the dates of the bar exam or the requirements for admission to the Maine bar.

The students had opposed the idea of provisional licensing in their earlier petition, arguing that employers would be hesitant to hire and train associates who were not fully licensed.

In May, three weeks after the court rescheduled the exam, Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead wrote to both Saufley and the law graduates to reject the two proposals.

In his letter to Saufley, Mead wrote that he expected the exam to take place in person on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. He also wrote that the Board of Bar Examiners would expedite grading, and the court would do the same for swearing-in ceremonies, so the delay for new attorneys to be admitted into the bar would be no more than six weeks from the usual timeline.

“Should it appear that any of those expectations will not occur as anticipated, the request for provisional licensing could be appropriate to reconsider at that time,” Mead wrote.

In his letter to the students, Mead said the court had done “a careful review of the pros and cons of the diploma privilege concept.”

“A bar examination is not a perfect predictor of professional competence, but we believe that it serves a vital purpose, and we decline to adopt a diploma privilege instead,” Mead wrote.

Leigh Saufley, the longtime chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, left that position in April to become the dean of the University of Maine School of Law. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In an interview Tuesday, Saufley said the law school has been in frequent contact with the Class of 2020, helping the graduates prepare for the bar exam and navigate the delays. She said she felt the proposal for provisional licensing was “realistic,” but did not take a position on whether the court or the board should reconsider the current plan for the exam.

“The question as to how the court should address credentialing lawyers in the midst of the pandemic if the exam cannot be given really lies with the court,” Saufley said.

This week, with the test dates seven weeks away, a recent graduate submitted an anonymous letter to the court and the Board of Bar Examiners, raising concerns about the safety of an in-person exam. That letter also circulated widely in the legal community and among members of the media.

“Public health officials need to be aware that the Maine Board of Bar Examiners and the highest court in Maine are making decisions that can, and likely will, have widespread public health consequences,” the person wrote. “Further, the public has a right to know that Maine is forging ahead with this risky indoor exam even though there are alternative options.”

A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency has been working with the Board of Bar Examiners since last month. The exam will be administered at the DoubleTree hotel in South Portland and at the law school.

The board has filled all the available seats for the rescheduled September test, according to their website. A list of applicants shows 149 people are scheduled to take the rescheduled exam in September, including more than 50 people with out-of-state addresses.

Melissa Hansen, executive director of the Board of Bar Examiners, declined an interview request last week, and she has not responded to emails with additional questions or a voicemail this week.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch said the court is preparing a statement on the upcoming exam. That statement was not available by the end of day Tuesday.

Saufley said she has offered the law school building in Portland as an additional testing space, and she is working with the board to set up that space in compliance with public health recommendations.

“The student’s concerns are the same kinds of concerns that everyone is expressing in almost every area of life and business,” Saufley said. “Can this be done safely? It is the responsibility of the Board of Bar Examiners, working with the Supreme Judicial Court, to make sure that any test that is given in person is done in compliance with the CDC’s information, the governor’s rules, et cetera.”

Other recent graduates said they are preparing to take the exam in person, but the delay has been stressful for them and their classmates.

McLean, who is also a state representative for parts of Gorham and Scarborough, said his own employment is not contingent on taking the bar exam. But he said the delay is a financial hardship for graduates who took out loans to finance their education and needed to start working as soon as possible. He signed the petition for diploma privilege, but is preparing to take the bar exam in person.

“People were counting on employment right after the bar exam,” said McLean, 34. “That has been delayed. There’s been a hardship that students are facing because they have not been employed when they thought they were going to be.”

Patrick Breslin, 30, said the delay prompted him to take a temporary job at the Maine Department of Labor and move back in with his parents in Kittery. He also lost his health insurance when his plan through the law school lapsed this summer.

“For me personally, that is a particular concern with having an in-person exam,” he said.

He said he doesn’t have a job lined up for this fall, but he knows people whose offers have already been rescinded because of the pandemic and the delayed exam. He also signed the petition for diploma privilege, and said he would have concerns with an online bar exam or provisional licensing at this point.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” Breslin said. “There’s a general sense of resignation.”

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