Florida’s Bar exam flap continues. Applicants ask court to let them practice.

After repeated delays and tech failures, prospective lawyers suggest supervised law practice as an alternative to the exam.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, where a petition was filed Thursday asking the court to allow prospective lawyers to forgo the Bar exam and allow them to practice under supervision.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, where a petition was filed Thursday asking the court to allow prospective lawyers to forgo the Bar exam and allow them to practice under supervision. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020

The saga over Florida’s failed efforts to administer the Bar exam is now at the center of a Florida Supreme Court case.

A petition filed Thursday asks the high court to approve an emergency rule permitting prospective lawyers to forego taking the Bar exam.

Instead, the petitioners want the court to approve a plan for supervised law practice and a “pathway to admission” to the Florida Bar that does not hinge on the high-pressure test.

“It’s time for Florida to provide a way for law students to be lawyers during this pandemic, and to have a rule that will govern any future inability to have a Bar exam,” said Miami attorney Brian Tannebaum, who filed the petition along with attorney Matthew Dietz.

Related: Technical glitches postpone Florida Bar exams

The document bears the names of several recent law school graduates, who assisted in preparing and writing it. The list of petitioners includes the names of more than 100 licensed Florida attorneys.

The Florida Bar exams, which prospective lawyers must pass to practice law, are held twice a year. This year, they were set to be administered in July at locations in Tampa and Orlando, but concerns about the potential spread of the coronavirus led to a postponement.

The Board of Bar Examiners, with the approval of the Supreme Court, opted for an online exam, which was to occur Wednesday. But repeated technical glitches in the exam software led to its cancellation late Sunday.

Related: The Florida Bar exam software crashes, freezes and can lead to hacks, examinees say

Plans now call for the exam to occur in October, but an exact date has yet to be finalized.

Thursday’s petition notes several other states have adopted what’s known as diploma privilege, a system that allows lawyers to become certified through continuing work and education, rather than through an exam.

The petition describes the hardship that several Bar applicants have endured. Many worry about possible lost job opportunities and health insurance, along with an inability to pay bills and student debt, and neglect of family responsibilities as they continue to study for the high-pressure exam.

It includes written declarations from 21 applicants.

One, Nicole Vera, described how she took out additional loans so she could study for the Bar while her husband took time off work to care for their 4-year-old son. Her husband is now returning to work, and she is unable to work or study. The loans are soon coming due.

“I’m worried our finances will not last us long enough to survive and pay the bills,” Vera wrote.

Another applicant, Daniela Gomez, wrote that she was supposed to start a job Aug. 4 with the Pinellas County Public Defender’s Office. But the latest delay forced her to push back her start date to November. She worries about being unable to pay rent on her new apartment.

“I could have spent the past three months working as a (certified legal intern), or working a summer position, instead of continuing to push my start date back,” Gomez wrote.

Related: Florida chief justice apologizes for Bar exam failures

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady released a video Wednesday apologizing for the recent exam failures. He also announced a “stop-gap program,” which will allow law school graduates to work under an attorney’s supervision until they can take the rescheduled exam.

The petitioners want to be able to argue their cause before the high court.

“While all lawyers are aware of the stress of taking the bar exam within settled expectations,” the documents states, “none have the experiences of these students who can not reach the finish line for no fault of their own.”