Testing in a Pandemic: The October 2020 Bar Exam

Post Authored By: Jane K. Morrison

In a city, and profession, where snow days are granted only during a polar vortex, no student believed a pandemic would cancel school – let alone the biggest exam of their career.

I had the opportunity to graduate early in December of 2019, but instead chose to finish out my last year of law school and graduate in May 2020 for two reasons: (1) to compete in another trial advocacy competition, and (2) to take the July Uniform Bar Exam. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both would be cancelled.

As we all know, COVID-19 entered our lives around December and quickly spread across the world. Being in the law school bubble, I did not fully understand what COVID-19 was until March; leaving me no time to process how exponentially it would impact me and my classmates.

After months of preparing for “trial”, the American Association of Justice Student Trial Advocacy Competition, which was to take place at the Daley Center, was cancelled on March 11 – the day before it was scheduled to begin. For me, this was more disappointing than a remote graduation. All we had to do was walk a few blocks to compete through the weekend. How could it be cancelled?

Chicago never shuts down. Not for inclement weather. Not for protests. Not for holidays. The third largest city in the country – the city that works – we too never sleep. Yet sleep we would. Not in peace, but in an anxious nightmare. The type that makes you wake up with a tightness in your chest and forget what day it is.

Within days, the loop became a ghost town. As businesses and jobs came to a halt, students had to soldier on. For third year law students, this meant throwing three years of study techniques out the window. No classrooms, no offices, no libraries, no cafes. It no longer mattered how you studied best; you only had one choice. A make-shift desk (possibly an old vanity or card table) in a small apartment or back at home with roommates, family and pets to both keep and lose your sanity. Steps away from where you eat, sleep, work out, play video games, binge TV, and numerous other distractions.

We had roughly two months of remote classes, then a remote graduation (if you get one at all), and then on to studying for the bar exam. The time had come.

At this point, the July Bar had been rescheduled for September. Study schedules were adjusted accordingly and while we had a little more room to breathe, this meant loss of jobs or delayed income for many of us. Everyone settled into their own routine and spent almost two months studying for the in-person Uniform Bar Exam. The only differences from the traditional bar exam were that it would include a health test, temperature checks and required masks.

COVID-19, however, did not care about our legal careers. It continued to spread and raise concerns about in-person testing. So, on July 23, the Bar was pushed back again, but this time with a new caveat. The bar exam would now be remote, half as long, and Illinois-focused only. Very different from what we signed up (and paid) for.

At this point, if one more person told me, “At least you get more time to study so you’ll definitely pass!” – I would be disbarred before ever getting sworn in.

While half as long meant shorter in length, it also meant less opportunities or room to get an answer wrong. While remote meant we no longer had to worry about whether or not we had COVID-19 the day of the test, it also meant that our “office” we had been working out of for months would become our testing center. In addition, an Illinois-only exam restricted those who were applying in multiple jurisdictions.

We did have the option to defer to the February exam at no extra cost, but this meant going through the application process all over again; waiting additional months to become a licensed attorney; and remaining unemployed longer than expected. Plus, who knew if the February exam would even happen? (Note: as of right now, it is still happening as a remote UBE).

After seven months in a quarantine, five of which were spent studying for the exam of our careers, the day finally arrived. October 5 and 6, 2020: our remote Illinois bar exam. Over 2,000 applicants logged on, but not all would finish. There were technology issues, noisy neighbors, and reserved study rooms that were not as private as expected. For example, one test-taker overheard her dog being attacked and could not do anything about it. Another test taker went into labor (and, if you have not read that story yet, it can be found here). For six hours over two days, we stared at a screen while being recorded and tried not to blink.

The 2020 law school graduates become a class of many firsts; firsts that I would never wish upon my worst enemy. Now it is over, and results are expected in December. Please pray for us all to pass.

About the Author:

Jane K. Morrison is employed with Feinberg Sharma, P.C., a family law firm in Chicago focusing exclusively on family law matters. Jane received her undergraduate degree at Iowa State University and her J.D. at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where she was a member of the trial team.

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