How a remote bar exam could contribute to inequality
June 3, 2021
This year, the New Jersey Bar Exam will be conducted remotely for the first time ever. From a public health standpoint, this seems to make perfect sense – candidates will avoid spending extended time indoors with a large group of people, and thereby any unnecessary risk of COVID-19. But from an equity standpoint, it may not be the impartial solution exam proctors hope for.
A recent Jurist article took a deep dive into the factors that may prevent minority candidates from having the same degree of success as white candidates in an online exam, citing a survey administered by the Coalition for Diploma Privilege in New Jersey from July 10th – 16th of this year. The results pointed to a wide disparity in resources when accounting for race.
Quiet space to take exam
Of the individuals surveyed, 37% of white bar candidates felt they would have access to a quiet place to take the exam. This percentage dropped precipitously for people of color, with 24% of Black, 22% of Latinx, 21% of Asian, and 9% of Southwest Asian or North African candidates responding positively.
Reliable internet access
Similar results were reflected when survey takers were asked whether they would have access to reliable internet for an online exam. 48% of white people surveyed responded positively – almost twice the 28% of Black candidates who did so. Asian, Latinx, and Southwest Asian or North African candidates were more likely to have reliable internet access, but still trailed behind white candidates.
To quote Jurist, “A White Bar candidate is 311% more likely to have a quiet place to take the remote exam compared to a Southwest Asian or North African candidate... a White Bar candidate is about 71% more likely to have reliable internet than a Black candidate.”
These are startling percentages, with less than half of the demographic reporting the most access to resources feeling confident that they will have a suitable environment for a test determining their professional future. Other demographics reporting even less access to a sufficient testing setting is a clear sign that other testing options may need to be considered if remote bar testing become the new normal.
A quiet space and trustworthy internet are only the bare necessities required for the day of the exam. When accounting for additional hardships being experienced – financial, housing, and food insecurity; personal or familial illness; childcare responsibilities; and mental or emotional health challenges – minority candidates reported a greater percentage in almost all categories. Presumably these challenges may affect candidates’ ability to focus on preparation for the exam, placing them at even greater disadvantage.
A changing world
As bar candidates prepare to take their exams in whatever format available to them, the legal industry continues to change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorneys are logging their billable hours remotely via case management software and lawyer apps. Essential forms are being stored via cloud software, and many firms are updating their law websites to appeal to a more virtual world.
As the legal industry evolves, it may be worth contemplating how it can take steps to combat a history of racial inequality as well as embracing technology shifts. The changes made to the bar exam now decide who gets to become tomorrow’s attorneys, and may have repercussions for years to come.
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