Colorado Law Students Raise Concerns Over In-Person Bar Exam Amid Coronavirus

Colorado Supreme Court building in Denver
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado Supreme Court building in Denver.

Updated July 8, 2020 at 11:28 a.m.

More than 1,100 people have signed a petition asking the Colorado Supreme Court to consider alternatives for this month's in-person bar exam, citing concerns over COVID-19. 

Law students behind the appeal are specifically asking for “diploma privilege,” which would allow prospective lawyers to practice law in Colorado without taking an exam.

Dan Ress, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Law School, said officials should look at other states that have reexamined upcoming exams. 

“There are three states that have, as a result of COVID, moved to diploma privilege, at least for this year. Those are Washington, Oregon and Utah,” Ress said. 

Jessica Yates, Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, said she takes several issues with law students’ requests. Notably, she said granting diploma privilege would put into question the basic competency of those attorneys — something that clients worry about. 

“They want the confidence that the attorney that they are hiring or the attorney who is appointed to the system in their matter is someone who they can trust and they can have confidence in their abilities,” Yates said. 

Yates said the 3,400 complaints about attorneys her office received from clients in 2019 shows a need for a proper bar exam. 

Ress and his colleagues suggested other ways to ensure lawyer competency without taking the bar exam. One alternative is expanding on mandatory post-bar continuing legal education courses.

“We could just have extra requirements for attorneys entering now, to make sure we hit all the practice areas we want people to be able to practice in,” Ress said. 

Law students also brought up several concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 transmission at exam sites. Some worry that as scientists warn of a second wave, gathering hundreds of people in the same building for two days in a row will lead to the virus spreading, regardless of any precautions taken.

"We have a pandemic that is changing how we do many different things in our society, and we think that it should change how we do the bar exam,” Ress said.

The Colorado Supreme Court released updated testing protocols last month. Those include temperature checks for the test-takers, social distancing and mandatory face coverings.

Yates said there are other options if these safety measures aren’t sufficient for people taking the exam.

“They can wait and take the February exam,” she said. “They can look into states with later exams if they feel they will feel better about it in September. They can go to a state having a September exam.”

Four states that border Colorado -- Utah, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico -- are holding bar exams in September. But the deadlines for applications have passed since those test dates were announced.

In addition to the online petition, students are planning on sending a letter to members of the Colorado Supreme Court, as well as dozens of anonymous testimonials detailing how the pandemic has personally affected them. 

“Both my family and my partner’s family are regularly at risk of exposure (due to their health care related jobs), and my brother has already had to quarantine due to exposure from a patient, leaving me assisting with his childcare,” said one testimonial from an anonymous CU student.

According to organizers, Colorado legislators, attorneys and professors signed their petition. 

In a joint statement from Colorado’s two law schools, Dean S. James Anaya, at CU, and Dean Bruce P. Smith, at University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, said they are working with bar authorities to determine the safest path forward. 

“Throughout, we have highlighted the unprecedented challenges faced by this summer’s bar-takers — and the fact that those challenges are borne differentially, depending on personal circumstances,” the statement read.  

The Colorado bar examination is set to be held from July 28 to July 29 at sites in Denver and Boulder.

Clarification: This story has been changed to reflect the states bordering Colorado that are holding bar exams in September and the date to submit applications for those exams has passed.