Opinion: Other Voices

Resistance to changing bar exam would make baseball purists envious

It’s Opening Day for Major League Baseball. Baseball is a game notoriously resistant to change. It took nearly 70 years for the American League to adopt longtime Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack’s request for the designated hitter. Let’s not forget about how long it took to get lights at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. This year, MLB will see several changes due to the challenging circumstances facing our country from COVID-19. There is no question that the new rules represent a major shift to our national pastime, which is steeped in tradition.

The end of July also signals a time-honored ritual for recent law school graduates. They travel by the hundreds to the State Fairgrounds, where they sit for hours and take the bar exam — a lengthy test that aspiring lawyers must pass before joining the ranks of the profession. With public safety concerns, orders limiting mass gatherings, and a total suspension of the constitutional right to trial by jury and other in-court functions, you could safely assume that this summer’s bar exam has been moved online or postponed.

You would be wrong.

Next week, hundreds of recent law graduates will sit for the bar exam just as in past years. It will be business as usual, except with masks and hand sanitizer. Were this any other setting, lawyers would be the first group to speak up in outrage. After all, one of the key roles of a lawyer is to advise people to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to others, even if those steps may be inconvenient or costly.

But here, it is lawyers who are exposing people to the risk of harm. The body that administers the bar exam, the Board of Law Examiners, is chosen by the State Bar, which is to say, by the state’s lawyers.

And the rules for administering the bar exam are subject to approval by the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Many of the graduates have requested that the exam be administered remotely out of concerns for their health and safety. While Major League Baseball and other entities have adapted to accommodate participants and consumers, decisionmakers in the legal profession have balked at meaningful adjustments to the administration of the bar exam in light of the examinees’ concerns.

A host of modifications or accommodations could be made, the simplest of which appears to be administering a remote exam. Failing there, serious consideration should be given to issuance of a provisional law license for these test takers, or establishment of a continuing education program that creates a pathway to licensure. Some states have gone further, adopting what has come to be known as “Diploma Privilege.”

It’s not too late to act. But, thus far, the N.C. Board of Law Examiners, N.C. State Bar, and Chief Justice Cheri Beasley have exhibited a resistance to change that would make baseball purists envious.

What these recent law school graduates need now are leaders with ideas and courage, and it is time for the legal profession to have an honest conversation about holding itself to the same standards it demands of others.

Oh, and Go Tigers!

Phil Berger Jr., a Republican, is a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He’s a candidate for a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court. This column represents the views of the author and does not reflect the views of the John Locke Foundation.