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Some bar exam takers say they felt safe, but saw room for improvement

For Megan Mallamas, sitting for the North Carolina Bar exam in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was “the lesser of two evils.”

“I turn 26 in October, and I preferred to risk exposure to COVID-19 while still on my parents’ health insurance, rather take it in September without a job in the middle of a pandemic,” said Mallamas, a Campbell Law School graduate. “I would either go without insurance or pay for private health insurance with no income in that situation, and both of those choices seem impractical to me under the circumstances.”

Hundreds of the 2020 bar exam applicants had to make similarly agonizing choices about whether to take the exam. Now that the exam is over, test-takers are waiting and seeing, and not just about whether they passed, but also whether they were exposed to the novel coronavirus.

Mallamas said she has classmates who decided just a few days before the July 28-29 exam not to take it. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and the days of the bar exam drew closer, the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners, which administers the Uniform Bar Exam, had a difficult choice to make, too. It ultimately decided to go forward with the exam, even as many people questioned the wisdom of its decision.

Despite the controversy, 668 exam takers gathered in Raleigh at N.C. State University and the Jim Graham Agricultural Building and Exposition Center at the nearby North Carolina Fairgrounds, to sit for the exam. Kimberly Herrick, chairperson of the NCBLE, said that 843 people had initially applied for the exam and 147 opted out, deciding instead to take it next February.

Who was that unmasked man?
Several students who sat for the exam told Lawyers Weekly that they felt safe during the two-day exam–test-takers were separated and people wore masks and were socially distanced–they also thought that there was room for improvement.

Mallamas noted that there were separate entrances for test-takers based on the first initial of their last names. But at the Graham Building, each line funneled into the same lobby and the same single door into the exam hall, which she said made the different entrances “almost pointless” in mitigating exposure to COVID-19. And while test-takers were separated into quadrants, they were able to walk freely between those quadrants. 

Other test-takers say that NCBLE didn’t do enough to keep things safe. Campbell Law School graduate Britni Prybol, who has been vocal in her criticism of the NCBLE’s decision to move forward with an in-person exam, tweeted that she sent out a survey and heard from dozens of people who cited concerns anonymously because they were afraid of suffering retaliation if they spoke out about conditions at the exam. 

Kimberly Herrick, who worked at the fairgrounds, said she did not receive any complaints about the administration of the test from test takers during the exam. 

“I know there were some who felt we shouldn’t go forward with the in-person exam, but the overall sense was that the examinees were appreciative of the opportunity to have the test as originally scheduled, in a reliable format,” Herrick said. “From what I observed, everyone in attendance did a great job keeping themselves and everyone else safe.”

A television news report showed people at a table in the lobby of one of the exam’s venues who weren’t wearing masks. Herrick said that they were members of the NCBLE board and staff, and none had direct contact with the test-takers, and the picture was taken in the outer lobby of the venue, after testing had already started, with the exam-takers seated in the main testing area.

State Fair’s emotional roller coaster

Some exam-takers spoke positively about the safety protocols they saw on exam day.

“We had a temperature check every morning, and they made sure that we were socially distanced in the line as well as in the testing room while we were waiting for the session to start,” said Kevin Littlejohn, who took the exam. “They also wiped down everything in the testing rooms during our lunch break, which was reassuring. I was unsure how they would pull off having 300-plus people in one room, but I felt like they exceeded my expectations and the expectations of other test takers.”

Holden McLemore said that while he had his reservations about taking the exam, he thinks everyone did their best to follow the social distancing guidelines.

“But personally, I am so glad to get this ordeal behind me,” McLemore said. “It was a challenge for everyone who took the exam, but I am proud of the way we all responded. It was notable that when we left the building for the morning session on Wednesday, local news media had arrived at the fair grounds to cover the announcement that the State Fair was cancelled due to COVID concerns. That certainly gave us all pause.”

There was at least one silver lining for the applicants, however: The NCBLE announced before the exam date that it was lowering the passing grade from 270 to 268 for the July exam.

“While some classmates found this change to be insignificant, I know that traditionally a lot of first-time test-takers who fail only do so by just a few points, so I was grateful for the change,” Mallamas said.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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