Aspiring lawyers balk at Minnesota bar exam over COVID-19 fears

A gavel sits on a desk inside a courtroom.
A gavel sits on a desk inside the Court of Appeals at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver in January 2013. In Minnesota, hundreds of aspiring lawyers are planning to take the state bar exam next week despite concerns about COVID-19. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied a petition from nearly five dozen recent law school graduates who’d sought to have the test waived this year.
Brennan Linsley | AP Photo 2013

Hundreds of aspiring lawyers are planning to take the Minnesota State Bar Exam next week despite concerns about COVID-19. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied a petition from nearly five dozen recent law school graduates who’d sought to have the test waived this year.

Naomi Martin graduated from the University of Denver’s Law School in May and returned home to Lester Prairie, Minn. The 29-year-old hopes to be a civil rights attorney. But in Minnesota, her new law degree isn’t enough; she still needs to pass the state bar exam.

Martin has been studying full time for the past two months. But she fears that sitting in a room with other test takers for two days could endanger her immediate family.

“I’m staying with my parents now, who are both in their 60s, and at a vulnerable age for COVID,” she said. “And so to expose myself to hundreds of folks at the bar exam, I wasn’t willing to risk bringing COVID back home.”

Martin said she decided to postpone her test after learning she’d have to sign a risk acknowledgment form, something she calls unethical.

“We’re acknowledging that we’re putting our lives at risk and that we’re taking that risk on ourselves, which is not something that I was willing to do," Martin said.

A portrait of a woman.
Naomi Martin of Lester Prairie, who graduated in May from the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, says she is waiting until next year to take the Minnesota State Bar Exam because she does not want to put her family at risk of COVID-19.
Courtesy of Naomi Martin

Martin said waiting another seven months to sit for the test poses an additional challenge.

She’ll have started a judicial clerkship by then, and will have to balance it with additional studying.

Martin is not alone.

Last month, 57 recent graduates of the University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas and Mitchell Hamline law schools petitioned the state Supreme Court, which oversees attorney licensing, to waive this year’s test.

They argue that the Minnesota State Board of Law Examiners is putting them at “undue risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19,” and that planned safety measures are insufficient.

A broad cross section of the legal community, including professors, attorneys and at least one judge, submitted comments in support of the graduates. So did the Minnesota State Bar Association, which St. Cloud attorney Dyan Ebert leads.

“We’re sympathetic to the 2020 graduates and the really unprecedented circumstances that we are in right now. It’s showing support for strange circumstances and really trying to be empathetic to the circumstances that they find themselves in really through no fault of their own,” Ebert said.

The graduates note that states including Washington and Utah are granting what’s known as diploma privilege this year. That means new attorneys can be licensed with just a law degree. The petitioners argue that the law school accreditation process and Minnesota’s professional responsibility rules are sufficient to keep unfit attorneys from hanging out a shingle.

But in a decision last week, Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea denied the petition, saying the bar exam is a longstanding requirement and must be administered to maintain “public confidence and trust in the competency of Minnesota’s lawyers.”

Gildea noted that the Board of Law Examiners is being flexible. There’s an additional testing session scheduled for September, and new graduates may begin their careers under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

In an email to MPR News, Board Director Emily Eschweiler outlined the health precautions being taken. She said on Tuesday and Wednesday, around 350 test takers will be split between a dozen rooms at two separate sites. Examinees will enter at different times and will sit at least six feet apart. Face masks are mandatory. People who need special accommodations will take the test at a different site.

Eschweiler said around 600 people typically take the July exam. By adding the second test site and the September sitting, she said the board was able to accommodate everyone who applied.

But even those outside the profession are concerned about reducing the flow of new talent if graduates like Martin delay getting their final credential.

Eric Hauge is executive director of Home Line, a Minneapolis nonprofit that advocates for tenants facing eviction. It counts many law students among its volunteers. Hauge said many stay on after becoming bona fide attorneys.

“They have experience with the ins and the outs of tenant-landlord law, especially evictions. And they have experience working directly, interviewing and providing advice directly to clients,” Hauge said.

Gov. Tim Walz has largely suspended evictions because of the pandemic. But once those emergency powers come to an end, Hauge fears thousands of people on the brink of homelessness may not be able to get the legal representation that they deserve.