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Iowa law graduates fight in-person bar exams

'We are scared for our health and safety'

Courtroom. (stock image)
Courtroom. (stock image)

IOWA CITY — Dozens of University of Iowa and Drake University 2020 law school graduates are converging in Des Moines this week — some reluctantly — for a two-day, in-person bar exam that critics argue should be optional this year given the COVID-19 pandemic and risks associated with large gatherings.

The test — as it stands — is expected to cram about 200 people from across the country into an exam room, prompting some Iowa law students, graduates and professors to argue for alternatives — including “diploma privilege” for those graduates with health-related concerns.

In an online petition via MoveOn.org, which had collected about 550 signatures as of Monday afternoon, proponents of an optional bar exam argued UI and Drake Law School graduates still wanting to sit for this week’s exam could do so as planned.

For the remaining graduates who don’t, however, the Iowa Supreme Court should permit the granting of “diploma privilege,” allowing the students to obtain their law licenses without passing the bar, according to the petition. Diploma privilege already exists in Wisconsin, and Washington, Oregon and Utah agreed to allow it this year, according to Iowa’s bar association.

“We are scared for our health and safety and the health and safety of our loved ones,” according to the petition, which as of Monday had failed to compel any change in Iowa’s bar exam rules.

The bar exam is scheduled to continue through Wednesday in Iowa, one of “roughly half of U.S. jurisdictions offering an in-person exam amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Iowa State Bar Association. It noted the Office of Professional Regulation is taking “necessary precautions to ensure the test is administered as safely as possible under current conditions.”

Kits including hand sanitizer and masks are being offered to examinees.

But concerned graduates in their petition lay out a defense for going bar-optional this year, including that it simply “is not safe” in Iowa to congregate indoors.

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“Iowa was listed as a ‘red zone’ in a document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force leaked on July 17, with over 100 cases per 100,000 people,” according to the petition. “Those numbers are highest in Polk County, where the bar exam is set to take place.”

On July 16, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported a record high 879 positive test cases in 24 hours.

“The CDC reports that the highest risk of COVID-19 spreading at events is for large in-person gatherings where it is difficult to keep people at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area,” the petition notes. “The Iowa bar exam is set to occur as an event that has the highest risk of COVID-19 spread in one of the hardest-hit counties within a ‘red zone’ state.”

The petitioners argued test-taking guidance has not addressed meal times, restroom breaks, registration and other interactions. They also cited the quality of Iowa law schools in arguing a degree is enough.

“Iowa Law has an over 95 percent pass rate for the Iowa bar exam,” according to the petition. “Drake Law has an 84 percent pass rate. These institutions are accredited by the American Bar Association and graduate the overwhelming majority of the lawyers that practice in Iowa.”

In that only a handful of graduates don’t pass the Iowa bar, petitioners argued, “The competency of our profession in the state will not suffer without the 2020 exam.

“And the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic are simply too high.”

Allowing students who don’t feel comfortable taking the in-person test to begin working immediately is paramount in a tattered economy, ravaged by the pandemic that has put millions out of work, according to the petition.

“Our jobs futures are uncertain, our student loans are coming due, and many of us are living off of credit cards to try and make it to our first paycheck after three years as students,” according to the petition. “Postponing the exam simply is not an option for us.”

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Plus, they argue, “There is no evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic will get better in the coming months, and rescheduling is likely to be a waste of time.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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