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John J. Zefutie Jr.COVID-19’s Impact on 2020 Law School Graduates

April 6, 2020

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has canceled the bar exam scheduled for July of 2020 and permitted recent 2020 law graduates to practice law subject to certain conditions and restrictions. This is an unprecedented, but necessary, decision in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. New York already has canceled their local testing day and postponed its bar exam to the fall.

Several weeks ago, a group of legal scholars and educators issued a paper entitled, The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Need for Immediate Action. The authors offered six options to address licensing new lawyers during this pandemic. Those options included postponing the bar exam (an option the authors warned against) and a “supervised practice” option that would allow a law graduate to be licensed after completing 240 hours of supervised legal work.

New Jersey, it appears, has taken a hybrid approach—postponing the bar exam while, at the same time, permitting 2020 law graduates to begin work as soon as possible. It will be interesting to see whether other states follow New Jersey and New York’s lead or whether they opt for a different response to COVID-19’s disruption of young lawyers’ careers.

In its April 6 Order, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner recognized that the “public has a growing need for legal services in many critical areas” and that “qualified law school students who expect to graduate this Spring may lose job offers, be unable to find legal work and otherwise suffer financial hardship.” To address these issues, and the ongoing health concern stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court canceled the July 2020 bar exam and ordered the Board of Bar Examiners to reschedule the exam for a date in the fall of 2020 (possibly September).

The Court’s Order, however, is more than just a scheduling Order. It allows this new class of young lawyers—the 2020 law graduates—to actually practice law before sitting for the bar exam. Rule 1:21-3 of the New Jersey Rules of Court permits law students and graduates to appear in court on a limited basis such as answering a calendar call, or appearing in cases while working with a legal services organization that is certified under Rule 1:21-11(b)(1) or (b)(3). See R. 1:21-3(a)(b). The Court’s April 6 Order “relax[es]” and “expand[s]” this Rule. Now, 2020 law graduates can be authorized to practice law under the supervision of an attorney who has been licensed to practice for at least three years.

The April 6 Order goes on to require that 2020 law graduates submit a complete application to sit for the first bar exam scheduled after their graduation (that is, in the Fall of 2020). Thus, 2020 law graduates must comply with the provisions of Rule1:24-1 and submit their applications, applicable fees, and all materials to review by the Board of Bar Examiners and the Committee on Character on or before June 5, 2020. In order for a 2020 law graduate to practice under this Order, s/he must be certified by the Committee on Character, and the Court has asked the Committee on Character to expedite the review process (more on that in a moment).

Once this process is complete, the Board of Bar Examiners “will issue individual orders that temporarily authorize 2020 graduates to practice law under supervision.” And when that occurs, 2020 law graduates will be permitted to provide legal services to clients, draft legal pleadings, enter appearance, engage in settlement discussions “and provide other counsel consistent with the practice of law in New Jersey.” Of course, that 2020 law graduate must do so under the supervision of a licensed New Jersey attorney who has been licensed for at least three years.

Further, under this new plan, 2020 law graduates are required to sit for the first examination scheduled after their graduation (that is, in the fall). Once a 2020 law graduate sits for the bar and the results are available, the temporary authorization to practice will end. Contrary to one of the options the legal educators put forth in their recent paper, 2020 law graduates cannot rely only on 240 hours of certified work experience to obtain a law license. A sit-down exam is still required.

The Court’s Order demonstrates how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal profession at every level—from Big Law partners and practice group leaders, to third-year law students eager to launch their careers. For law students, however, there is a silver lining. This is a rare opportunity to learn the ropes of lawyering before ramping up their study efforts for the bar. Of course, many graduates may be concerned: “How can I practice law and adequately prepare for the bar exam? Aren’t they both full time jobs?” The answer is yes, but don’t be disheartened.

On a practical level, if the bar exam is rescheduled for September of 2020 (as Chief Justice Rabner suggests), law students should have plenty of time over the summer months to study and prepare for both the New York and New Jersey exams, with only a limited overlap with their full time positions, depending on private bar study schedules. Most law students start practicing or clerking in September. And, in its April 6 Order, the Court directed that all law clerks be given one week of leave to study. Individual judges have discretion to afford their law clerks with one additional week. For law graduates going to law firms, the Court “encourages supervising attorneys, law firms, and other legal employers to offer 2020 graduates the same accommodation.”

We hope that partners and supervising attorneys will accept the Court’s invitation and do everything possible to support our 2020 graduates as they start their careers in these uncertain and unprecedented times. We also hope that our colleagues in the New Jersey Bar will contact the Board of Bar Examiners and volunteer to review character and fitness applications so that the review process can move forward quickly and the class of 2020 can get to work.

Colella Zefutie LLC

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