The first fully remote bar exam of the year happened last week, and it did not go well.
Trouble started early in the testing process – participants in the Michigan state bar exam found themselves locked out of the second of five test modules for roughly an hour, unable to retrieve the password they needed to access the next section of the test. Officials claimed it was the result of a cyberattack, though some have speculated that the true cause of the issue was the testing software becoming overwhelmed. Candidates were eventually supplied with the password they needed and given additional time to complete the test, but it was a disconcerting episode to happen during what is potentially the most important test of an aspiring lawyer’s life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Indiana will be avoiding concerns of software capacity this month by holding an open–book bar exam via email. Questions will be emailed out to the test takers, who will then have to email back their responses within the allotted amount of time. There will be no remote supervision or anti-cheating software involved. The idea of an open-book exam may raise some eyebrows, but realistically all lawyers will have to do research at some point in their careers. The ability to understand a question and efficiently find an answer may be just as useful as memorizing information for an exam, but it’s true than an open-book exam is a very different beast from the strictly proctored exams that have historically taken place.
Bar exams have always been set by each state rather than being nationally standardized, but there’s a wide gulf between an in-person exam, a fully online exam with online proctoring, and a write-in email exam. We’ve written before about concerns surrounding the move to remote bar exams in the COVID-19 era. Concerns about equity, the option of diploma privilege, and whether the bar exam is really necessary all point towards increasing unpredictability of how, exactly, the next generation of attorneys will obtain the necessary credentials to begin their careers.
As state bar examiners continue to juggle concerns of efficacy and equity for this year’s exams, there’s been considerable emphasis on the role of technology in helping attorneys adjust to their new normal. Law firms have adopted new case management systems including billing software and calendar software, and traded physical courtrooms for Zoom calls. Legal software has made huge advances in the areas of document automation and tracking billable hours, and many lawyers who have embraced these tools are finding that they’re able to maintain or even improve their efficiency while working in a more digital world.
There’s no question that increased dependence on technology is here to stay–law firms aren’t immune; everyone from personal injury law firms to family law firms are relying on lawyer apps and legal software more and more–but there may be some growing pains as the bar exam and other large-scale events struggle to put online solutions in place quickly. We may see more states embracing Indiana’s emailed open-book version of the exam, or going the way of diploma privilege, to ensure less stress for both their candidates and internal systems. Either way, it’s an uncertain time for aspiring lawyers. The legal industry seems to have successfully adjusted to our current pandemic era–with law software recording billable hours and practice management software helping law firms stay organized–but the process of becoming a lawyer remains in flux.