COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
The state's bar exam will bring hundreds of law school graduates to Columbia and Osage Beach later this month, a fact that concerns some test takers.
More than 600 people are set to take the test on July 28 and 29 at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia and Tan-Tar-A Resort in Osage Beach. Despite the precautions the Missouri Board of Law Examiners plans to take at each spot, many graduates fear the indoor gathering of hundreds of people could help spread the virus.
"I'm less concerned for my own safety than I am potentially transmitting the virus to my elderly family members, to my immunocompromised siblings," one University of Missouri law school graduate set to take the test in Columbia said. "It just has the potential to become a super spreader event and people are very legitimately concerned for their health and safety."
Test takers spoke to ABC 17 News on condition their names not be used for fear of retaliation by agencies in charge of their potential licensing as lawyers. Many have written to state and local leaders in hopes of finding alternate ways for the graduates to begin working in the legal profession without putting themselves at potential risk of getting COVID-19.
The Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services has taken some complaints about the test, according to assistant director Scott Clardy. The county's health order limits gatherings to 100 people, but city staff approved the operational plan allowing them to go forward with the test. The plans put test takers in at least four different shared rooms to take the bar exam, with up to 40 staff present. Some can take the test in individual hotel rooms.
MBLE director Andrea Spillars told ABC 17 News that the Columbia testing site will have 420 people and the Osage Beach site will have 212 people.
City councilman Ian Thomas said he had concerns with the test taking place. He also pointed to a waiver the MBLE requires test takers to sign releasing them from liability if they contract COVID-19 from the event.
Thomas emailed some people that complained to him that they might consider organizing a boycott of the test. Thomas told ABC 17 News that he should not suggest a certain course of action for test takers.
"In retrospect, it's probably not my place to recommend any particular action on their part, although I believe that [MBLE] does bear a responsibility for addressing the serious health and safety concerns of those taking the bar exam, apart from any variance allowed or disallowed by the Health Dept.," Thomas said.
Clardy said the department did not have an intention of reconsidering its approval of the plans as of Friday night.
The MBLE, who coordinates and administers the two-day test, submitted operational plans to both the Boone and Camden County health departments. The Boone County plan calls for tests to be held in several rooms of the Holiday Inn Executive Center, the largest of which will hold a maximum of 260 test takers in a 19,000 square-foot room. A second will hold 110 examinees and a third holds a maximum of 48 test takers.
A maximum of 255 test takers will report to Tan-Tar-A Resort for their exam. The largest room will hold up to 120 people to take the test.
Proctors giving out the test will be screened ahead of time and on the days of the test to make sure they and those they live with are healthy. They will wear face shields and masks, and will have a protective barrier between them and graduates checking in for the test. Proctors will be required to wear gowns and gloves when handing out test materials.
Those taking the test are also required to wear a face mask. Seats and tables will be set up so that test takers are six feet apart.
The test taker that spoke to ABC 17 News said
"With such a large group, even if you take all of these precautions in their report, even if you follow them to a T, the chances are very, very high that somebody there will have coronavirus and will transmit that to their fellow test takers.
The state's four law school deans wrote to the Supreme Court of Missouri and the MBLE to consider alternative ways to license graduates for work. The group cited rising COVID-19 cases in the state, and the stress put on law school graduates forced to take the test in order to work.
"[T]he rising coronavirus case number in Missouri makes many of our graduates feel as if they are being asked to make an impossible choice between protecting their health and the health of their loved ones, and securing their careers and financial futures," the deans wrote.
The deans proposed awarding graduates a provisional license that would have special ongoing legal education rules. The license would convert to a full-on law license after a year, as long as the person had no serious ethics or misconduct violations.
A news release from Supreme Court of Missouri clerk Betsy AuBuchon said that none of the alternatives adequately protected the integrity of the profession by making sure those practicing the law passed the test.
"In taking these steps, the Court and the Board have sought to balance the needs of this year’s law school graduates with the ongoing obligation to protect the public and the integrity of the profession through oversight of the profession and its practitioners," AuBuchon said. "The Uniform Bar Exam plays a critical role in that process by ensuring those who are newly licensed have demonstrated they possess the minimal knowledge and skills to perform activities typically required of those entering this profession."
Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri law school, said the 72 graduates will take the test at the Columbia location. She has encouraged students to continue studying and preparing for the test despite the uncertainty surrounding it.
"No one can know at present whether the measures taken will be enough to protect test takers or the public given the rising number of coronavirus cases in Boone County and in Missouri, but I understand and appreciate that the Court is doing its best to make an informed decision that balances a variety of important interests under extremely difficult circumstances," Lidsky told ABC 17 News.
Some test takers have also pushed for Missouri to adopt "diploma privilege," a concept that allows graduates of American Bar Association accredited law schools to begin practicing law in their school's state without taking a Bar exam. Wisconsin is the only state in the U.S. that allows this.
The courts allowed test takers concerned over the test to push back their test date to February 2021. The MBLE said that so far, 62 people have requested a delay.
Many student said delaying their test until February would make things harder. A delay means several more months without working in their profession.