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With Bar exams set for July, wave of worry for prospective Florida lawyers

Because of coronavirus, other states have delayed exams participants must pass to practice law. Florida has taken precautions, but some say it’s not enough

TAMPA — Thousands of prospective Florida lawyers are likely to take the General Bar Examination in July. And that’s making a lot of people nervous.

The exams, which applicants must pass to practice law in Florida, are set to be administered July 28 and 29 in Tampa and Orlando, with the threat of COVID-19 likely still looming.

In Tampa, the test has typically drawn thousands of lawyer-hopefuls to the Tampa Convention Center, where test sessions last as long as six hours each over two days.

The board that administers the exams has taken a number of precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus. But the decision not to postpone testing has created a wave of trepidation among test-takers, law professors and lawyers.

“Initially there was just this kind of frozen shock that I felt," said Cathren Page, a law professor at Barry University in Miami Shores. “I just have this picture in my mind, over and over, where I see individual students I know sitting in this auditorium full of people taking the exam with the masks. And I picture one of them could get sick or end up in the hospital and die.”

Page started an online petition through change.org asking the state Board of Bar Examiners to do more to ensure the health and safety of exam participants. As of Wednesday, more than 600 people had signed it.

It also seeks an extended deadline for exam takers to apply for accommodations for disabilities, which may include those with compromised immune systems. The current deadline to apply for accommodations is Friday.

Florida’s Bar exams occur twice a year, in February and July.

Amid uncertainty about what the pandemic will look like by mid-summer, a number of other states have postponed their bar exams until September or October.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners last week announced that they planned to proceed with the exams as scheduled in July. The decision came with the approval of the Florida Supreme Court and in consultation with the state Department of Health.

There will be precautions. This year, there will be more than one testing location: the Tampa Convention Center and the Orange County Convention Center.

Each test-taker will have his or her own table. People will be seated six feet apart in all directions. All will have their temperatures taken before the exam. Those with temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees will not be allowed to sit for the exam. All test-takers will be required to wear masks.

But with the exam still more than two months away, it’s still possible the Board could decide to postpone it.

“It’s going to depend on the situation as we get closer to the exam,” said Michele Gavagni, executive director of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. “A lot can change between now and then.”

While some states plan to conduct bar exams remotely, Gavagni said it’s not feasible to convert to a remote format in Florida.

Critics say the precautions are not enough. They worry about coronavirus carriers who may not show symptoms. And there is concern for test-takers from out of state who would be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the Sunshine State.

“It makes an extraordinarily difficult, nerve-wracking time even more difficult,” said Matthew Dietz, a Miami lawyer who specializes in disability advocacy. He said he’s heard from a number of Bar applicants who need special accommodations. They include test-takers who have compromised immune systems who have been told not to travel or visit crowded places to avoid infection.

Charles Fink, a law student at the University of Florida, underwent a kidney transplant during his second year of law school and takes medication that suppresses his immune system to keep his body from rejecting the transplant. He got used to isolating to protect his health long before the pandemic.

“I am greatly concerned about taking the bar exam in July in a room with so many people,” he wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. “And it’s not just the test — it’s the queuing, the breaks, the bathrooms, the hotels. There’s a lot the bar administrators will not have control over. The bar exam is stressful enough without worrying if I am putting my life at risk.”

Fink said he thinks the precautions for the exams are well-meaning, but he’s concerned about their adequacy. He thinks postponing or conducting exams in smaller groups throughout the state would be better.

Dietz said he thinks private administration of the exams might be necessary for some.

“I look not only at the test sites, but also each step along the way," Dietz said. “Travel to the hotel. Travel from the hotel to the test sites ... You don’t want anybody jeopardizing their health to take the exam.”

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