By Scott Merrill
On April 2nd students of the 2020 graduating class of UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law wrote a letter to the New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners requesting an emergency diploma privileged bar admission.
The students are part of growing number of law students around the country who have who have asked for diploma privilege, which grants bar admission to students who graduate from accredited law schools without completing a bar exam.
“We did not get to savor any last moments, we had no final photographs or memories with friends, and we will not celebrate our graduation in May. Through all of this, we are maintaining and adjusting to an online class schedule, completing internships from our homes, looking for jobs in a crashing economy, all while preparing for the bar exam,” the letter states.
The letter, signed by 42 students, (about 2/3 of the graduating class), outlines the struggles students are going through at the moment and recommends either an online bar exam or diploma privilege with additional requirements because of the potential for COVID-19 related postponements.
The letter offers what students believe to be reasonable alternatives and argues that a postponement will lead to unnecessary lost job opportunities, mental health issues and financial hardships.
In a response to law students signed by Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi, on April 10th, the Court decided to maintain the postponement of exams because of “logistical challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic,” and stated that it was, “researching options to accommodate all interests involved in the bar exam process.”
The consequences of postponement are complicated and time sensitive, according to Erika DeCosty, a 2020 J.D. candidate at the School of Law, and one of the signees of the letter.
“To put it lightly, it has been an extremely stressful ride. Every day we see states cancelling bar exams and fellow students losing job and internship offers,” said DeCosty, adding that she and her peers are now scrambling to find UBE exams.
“After Massachusetts announced they may administer an online non-UBE exam there is now a scramble to find a UBE exam. Unfortunately, many July deadlines have passed or there are immense late fees (New Mexico and Missouri are around $1300 or more before travel),” said DeCosty, who plans to start a job in August with IBM’s patent office in Buffalo, NY.
The UBE is a standardized bar exam created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).
UBE scores are “portable,” according to Kaplan, a testing company. This means they can be used to apply in multiple jurisdictions that have adopted the UBE. All of the New England states, as well as New York have adopted the test.
“I know many of my friends from UNH and Boston law schools were planning to sit for a Massachusetts bar exam in the fall but are now unsure since they would like to obtain a UBE score for flexibility in the future. Many of my friends at New York law schools are unsure if they should roll the dice and attempt to sit in NY but are worried about being boxed out for a fall bar exam.”
The alternatives proposed in the letter include emergency diploma privilege limited to the COVID-19 pandemic and/or online bar exams. So far neither has been adopted.
A diploma privilege is fashioned after the diploma privilege already in place in the state of Wisconsin, which extends bar admission to all graduates of the state’s ABA-accredited law schools.
“Our school has shared they are not in favor of diploma privilege at this time,” said DeCosty.
UNH’s Franklin Pierce School of Law Academic Support Director, Leah Plunkett, said the school sympathizes with students and is encouraging them to spread out their study time in order to plan for the postponed exam dates of Sept. 9th and 10th.
“This is a stressful entry into the profession but we are confident that our bar passages and job placement will remain strong,” said Plunkett, adding that the school is grateful for the attorneys in town, the superior courts and the bar examiners, who have been engaged in, “thoughtful, pragmatic, and collaborative problem solving.”
Kaplan Testing, who provides testing preparation courses and other course material for students , said their top priority is to make sure students receive quality preparation for the bar exam.
According to Senior Regional Director of the Kaplan Bar Review, Garrett Borjrosh, providing students with the support needed to make the most of this extra time is a priority.
“We will still be running a Live at Home course where students are able to access the live lectures from the comfort and safety of their homes and ask their professor questions in real-time,” said Borrosh, adding that, “We are currently reworking our syllabus to reflect New Hampshire’s new test dates.”
UNH School of Law Dean and Professor Megan Carpenter said the NH Supreme Court has been actively engaged in thinking through the issues raised in the student’s letter with the NH Board of Bar Examiners.
“We share information frequently,” she said, adding that, “the Court has been thoughtful in discussions with us. I have been impressed by their focus on what will prepare students best for the job market and to do the important work of representing clients in the state of NH.”
DeCosty, and others who signed the letter to New Hampshire Board of Bar Examiners, have been working hard to confront the realities that postponing the New Hampshire bar exam could bring. She believes many of the students who were scheduled to take the July exam “would have pulled it off” and statistically this is likely, given the UNH School of Law’s pass record which far exceeds national pass averages.
DeCosty said she understands the concerns for the public with automatic diploma privilege but explained she has spoken with the school about this issue and made recommendations such as having a “limited” diploma privilege.
“This privilege would not allow us to open up our own firm by ourselves within the next 10 years or the like,” she said, adding “that at this time we are just hoping they still are considering everything in our letter.”
While students around the country are in a state of limbo at the moment, awaiting final grades and graduation postponements, graduating law students are in a particularly time sensitive bind.
“Students with job offers fear they will be rescinded if the bar exam is delayed; reports of rescinded offers have already followed the New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut delays,” the student letter explains. “Students without job offers cannot market themselves to wary employers who do not know when a potential candidate will be able to practice law. Eventually, postponement will have the class of 2020 competing with the class of 2021 for jobs.”