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Graduates of San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis had to deal with a roller coaster ride to take their Bar exams in 2020.

published on July 7, 2021 - 2:07 PM
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The bar exam has been administered remotely for the past year, bringing in a higher pass rate. But the court system still needs relief.

The bar exam, typically issued in July and February each year, was postponed last year and ultimately moved online. This July the exam will continue online, said The State Bar of California.

The pass rate was especially high at the San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis, which saw a 71.9% pass rate for first-time bar examinees. That’s up from only 18% in 2019 and 32% in 2018.

In fact, it represented a 10-year high for the college.

The State Bar of California said that the October 2020 bar exam was administered to a near-record number of examinees – 9,301 – the largest cohort since 2013. It was the first-ever to be administered online remotely. Of the total cohort, 8,920 took the exam online.

But moving exams online was not without its challenges.

Jesus Pereda, associate attorney at Fresno-based law firm Mark A. Broughton, PC, started out as a clerk.

Exam delays didn’t come as a surprise, given the delayed graduation and Covid-19 cases rising at the beginning of the pandemic.

Pereda was uniquely positioned in a flexible work environment, and his boss allowed him to take time off to study — about a month and a half in preparation for the July 2020 date.

He went back to work and stopped studying almost completely. He started studying again after learning the exam was moved from July to October 2020.

“Bar pass rates have been very poor for our school as well as most schools. So something needed to be done for bar pass rates,” Pereda said.

He said the San Joaquin College of Law put in extra preparation for students waiting to take the bar exam.

While Pereda needed time away from work to study for the exam, the firm hired another clerk in the interim.

After returning, there were more law clerks than necessary and he waited from October to January 2021 to see his exam results.

Pereda believes there’s an advantage to taking it online. The bar exam, he says, is not typically offered in Fresno, so examinees have to travel outside of the Central Valley. It demands hotel, gas and food expenses.

The Supreme Court also directed the State Bar to create another admissions option for 2020 law graduates: The Provisional Licensure Program, launched in November 2020, enabled 2020 law graduates to apply to begin practice without immediately taking the bar exam. Hundreds of law graduates took this option instead, said The State Bar of California. They will have until June 1, 2022, to take the bar exam.

Kelly Liu, associate attorney at Abrams Law Group in Fresno, was not surprised by the exam delays since everything was shut down. But she found it hard to motivate herself to study because of the uncertainty.

“In the back of my mind I was like, ‘What if I study and then it gets postponed and then I forget what I originally studied, and then I have to study again?’” Liu said.

Liu faced several challenges before taking the bar exam that she ultimately passed. A close family member was severely sick with pneumonia, and she feared the test would just be postponed again.

Liu previously worked at the Internal Revenue Service and said she had no interest in going to law school. She sat with her boyfriend who studied for the Law School Admission Test and eventually became intrigued by the material. After signing herself up for the exam and getting into law school, she followed the path to an internship.

She didn’t work during the bar exam preparation, which she said was about five weeks.

“I was a little bit burnt out honestly, just doing so much. Going to law school, doing my internship, going to work. For so many years, I just felt like I needed to focus on the bar,” Liu said.

She said she appreciated the online version because it took the edge off to be in the comfort of her own home. She also thought that having breaks to herself was helpful. But on the second day, she had to take her exam through a sounding home security system alarm. Examinees are not allowed to leave their computer screens during the exam so she had to take her text through the distraction.

Some students are offered a job on the condition that they pass the bar exam, but Liu waited to apply for jobs after she knew for a fact that she passed.

The San Joaquin College of Law said that it had not noticed a particular impact on jobs after law school based on online exams, but the pandemic has created a disjointed court system.

Liu believes that the courts will always be impacted, but many hearings are done via Zoom. Normally clients have to pay for attorneys’ mileage and parking to and from hearings.

Pereda said that in his experience, there is a serious backlog in court dates.

“I would say backlogged is somewhat of an understatement,” he said. “It seems like this is probably the worst it’s ever been.”

The bulk of the labor has fallen on trying to get cases to preliminary hearing and then to trial.

He said especially for clients who are out of custody, it’s hard to get a preliminary hearing finished.

“There’s such a big backlog, and it could be that the Fresno Superior Court – there’s not enough judges – like a combination of both things,” he said.

“It can’t be solely attributed to Covid because I believe there’s a shortage of judges at Fresno Superior Court. So that in combination with the emergency orders has delayed things really badly,” Pereda said.

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