UPDATED: April 4, 2020, 4:26 p.m.
Nearly 200 third-year Harvard Law School students signed a letter to Law School administrators Thursday asking for the school to publicly advocate for an emergency diploma privilege — a policy granting graduating students their law licenses without requiring the bar examination.
The letter asked the Law School to take four specific actions on behalf of its students. These requests include issuing a public statement supporting the emergency diploma privilege across the United States; sharing the students’ letter with other law schools; sending a statement supporting the privilege to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts; and hosting a virtual town hall for students to discuss their needs with the administration.
Donna C. Saadati-Soto, a co-author of the letter, said she believes it would be unfair to ask students to sit for the multi-day exam this summer since the ongoing coronavirus pandemic limits the ability of some students to prepare over the coming months.
“I intended to sit for the California bar exam that was set to happen in July,” she said. "There's no way that folks are going to be able to sit for a July 2020 administration of the exam.”
Saadati-Soto said that several states have already postponed their exams in light of the COVID-19 crisis and associated social distancing restrictions. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts announced Monday it would postpone its July 28 and 29 exam until an undetermined date in the fall.
But the Law School students’ letter argues that merely postponing the bar exam will jeopardize the employment opportunities and financial security of graduates.
“Most HLS graduates planned to begin working with employers starting late Summer or Fall 2020,” it reads. “If state bar exams continue to be postponed, it is unclear if students will begin working, as planned.”
The letter discusses how deferred employment could particularly harm international students, whose immigration status could be affected by unemployment, as well as first-generation and low-income students.
“For those students with limited means, it is unclear how they will financially support themselves, and their families, if their employment starts at a later date,” the letter reads. “For all, it is unclear if students will be expected to begin making payments on their student loans this year.”
Saadati-Soto said students who can secure employment before the postponed exam might have to decide whether to work full-time or study for the exam full-time — a decision she thinks would eliminate traditionally marginalized students from the legal profession.
“Folks that don't have the financial security to be able to just quit their job and study for the bar at any moment — they might choose to forego the state bar,” she said. “That means low-income students, immigrant students, folks of color are the ones that are going to be more likely to have to forgo taking or studying a later exam because they're going to be needing to work to provide for themselves and their family.”
She also said that the legal profession currently faces a mental health crisis, and having to take the bar exam could exacerbate the issue by adding unnecessary financial and academic stress in the midst of a global pandemic.
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an emailed statement that administrators realize the bar exam’s postponement in several states has disrupted graduating students’ plans. Neal added that administrators appreciate that students have taken initiative and proposed a solution to this problem, and that the school will continue to work with the state to “explore” ways to address it.
“Our student services offices also stand ready to work with our students one-on-one to help them assess their plans and chart a path forward in light of changing events,” he wrote.
Marilyn J. Wellington, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, declined to comment on the students’ proposal.
The students’ letter also listed additional concerns about postponed exams, such as uncertainty about what the state of the pandemic will be in the fall.
“Given that vaccinations and preventative medical therapies will not open to the market for at least a year, the potential for another outbreak is simply a matter of time,” it reads. “A shortsighted decision to merely postpone the July exam, if met with the high probability of subsequent outbreak and a resulting further postponement, will deprive Americans of crucial legal assistance in the months ahead.”
The letter argues that the huge numbers of people impacted by COVID-19 require that as many lawyers as possible enter the workforce to advocate for struggling small businesses, recently unemployed individuals, and families facing eviction.
It also alleges the country could need more lawyers to continue providing criminal defense and advocating on behalf of working people and detained immigrants — a need it claims can only be fulfilled if law school graduates are granted automatic admission to the Bar.
“We cannot ignore matters of due process and deprivations of individual liberty, even in times of novel national crises,” the letter reads. “We the undersigned request that Harvard Law School recognize the imminent need for legal advocates and take the most humane, public-health conscious, and ethical approach.”
“Just as our colleagues in medical schools have been called upon to join the front lines fighting COVID-19, so too are attorneys needed to fight for the rights of individuals most affected by this pandemic,” it concludes.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.