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Florida high court cancels in-person Bar exams, will go online

The exams were set to be administered July 28 and 29 in Tampa and Orlando. Concerns grew in recent weeks over the threat of COVID-19.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee.
The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 1, 2020
Updated Jul. 1, 2020

The Florida Supreme Court announced Wednesday that the in-person Bar exams scheduled for later this month are canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners will conduct exams online Aug. 18.

The decision came after increasing calls from lawyers, law professors, politicians and students to enact alternatives to the in-person tests. They were to be administered July 28 and 29 in Tampa and Orlando.

Amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases in Florida, worries grew over the wisdom of gathering thousands together in the same spaces for tests that take as long as six hours over two days.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m so relieved,” said Cathren Page, a law professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, who was an early voice in the call to postpone the exams. “I’ve worked with so many of these Bar takers, I’ve seen how much grit they have. It was just crushing me that they were having to choose between their lives and their careers.”

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

Several other states have also postponed their exams or switched to an online format. A few have allowed an alternative known as diploma privilege, which allows law school graduates to bypass the exam.

But in Florida, it’s pass the exam or bust.

The Board of Bar Examiners had planned a number of precautions for the in-person exams, including social distancing at test locations and mask requirements and temperature checks for test-takers.

State representatives Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani, both Orlando Democrats, sent a letter this week to the state’s Supreme Court justices and the Board of Bar Examiners, urging them to consider other options for the exams. The legislators said they had received several complaints from constituents and law school students about plans to hold the exams in-person. They noted that many applicants would have to travel long distances, some from out of state, and stay in hotels overnight.

Smith praised the postponement Wednesday on Facebook, noting that he had heard from Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson and said he shared their concerns.

Johnny Carver, a recent graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, was outspoken in his support for exam alternatives. He is immuno-compromised and recently underwent surgery in the midst of studying for the exams.

“I could not be happier with that decision,” he said, “because it eliminates the physical danger of disabled and immuno-compromised students taking the test in person.”

But Carver, who said he supports a diploma privilege, said he has heard from other test takers who have a lot of questions.

Wednesday’s announcement said that the General Bar Examination will consist of 100 multiple choice questions and three essay questions that may cover any subject traditionally tested on the general Bar exam. Applicants will not have to take the Multistate Bar Exam to establish technical competence.

Carver said he spent his studying efforts preparing mostly for that portion, but it’s unclear if the same material will be part of the online exam.

“This news would have been welcome in May, as I’ve now spent months agonizing in stressful uncertainty,” said Charles Fink, a law student at the University of Florida. “And the solution they’ve presented does raise some new issues, but the important thing is we won’t have a COVID convention in the two fastest growing hot spots in the country. I am thrilled and thankful I won’t have to make any choices balancing my life and health with my career in order to timely take a test.”

Those taking the online exam in August must have access to the necessary technology, including a computer with a webcam and internet access. The Board will also require applicants to use software from its vendor, ILG, to take the exam.

The Board also extended the deadline to July 10 to request testing accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Further information about the exams is available at floridabarexam.org.