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Law school grads fear catching COVID-19 during bar exam

The Hawaii state bar exam will proceed with possibly up to 200 applicants confined to a single room, eight hours a day for two days with an exemption from the governor’s and mayor’s emergency proclamations.

Despite assurances by the Hawaii State Judiciary that safety measures will be in place, the decision has angered and frustrated recent law school graduates who feel they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered March 31 to move the exam to Sept. 9 and 10 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center from July 28 and 29 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have these emergency orders that no more than five people can be together in a room,” said asthma sufferer Aris Springs, 28, who graduated May 10 from the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law. “Somehow we’re able to get 200 people in the same room? … We’re not even sure if it’s worth putting our lives on the line.”

“It’s one thing for us to make the decision to take the risk, but is that fair for all my classmates’ family members?” Springs asked. “Especially in Hawaii, with multigenerational families living together—grandmas, uncles and aunties. It’s just a COVID breakout waiting to happen.”

As of Wednesday, 140 plan to take the exam, the Judiciary said. Typically 200 take the bar.

The problem is nationwide. The American Bar Association recommended in August that states postpone in-person exams. Some have gone online, with software problems, while a few offered mail-in exams.

On July 22, the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered basic safety measure to be implemented. Applicants were given six days to decide whether to take the test in September or opt for a two-year provisional license. This allows law school graduates to practice under the direct supervision of a licensed practicing Hawaii attorney, and defer testing to a later date.

Springs asked if someone during the course of the test should become ill, what would happen to the remaining exam-takers? Given the high stakes, he suggests the likelihood exists that someone ill may try to take the exam.

He opted to sit for the bar despite a lack of details on the safety measures.

“What upsets me the most is that I’m getting punished in a way for trusting that (the Judiciary) would do the right thing, that they would cancel the exam if cases started increasing,” Springs said.

Springs said he’s speaking out on behalf of his classmates who are afraid that voicing their concerns could jeopardize their future careers and lose job opportunities.

The former foster child from Guam said he came to Honolulu with $200 in his pocket and plans to use his law degree to advocate for those without a voice.

One such classmate, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “They are asking me to choose to work or alternatively to protect my family. It’s almost cruel.”

“I’m near the top of my class, but I live with my elderly parents,” he said, not wanting to endanger their health or risk his by being in the same room with so many people for so many hours for two days.

He has a job waiting for him at a Honolulu law firm, but that is contingent upon his taking the test, whether the upcoming exam or the one in February.

“Student loans are going to become due,” he said. “I’m not able to delay working for six months to a year.”

Fellow graduates say firms are not hiring them with the provisionary license since they cannot afford to have an attorney oversee them. Also their malpractice insurance won’t cover them.

UH law school professor Ken Lawson suggests foregoing the bar entirely during this unprecedented pandemic.

“Anyone who graduated from an ABA school in June and who had applied to take the bar exam but because of COVID cannot, should be automatically allowed in (to the bar) with diploma privileges.”

The Judiciary said Wednesday in an email the following measures will be in place at the September bar exam:

>> Seating is at individual tables 6 feet apart.

>> No congregating will be permitted inside or outside the exam room.

>> Convention center staff will perform enhanced cleaning and disinfecting. Hand sanitizer stations will be available.

>> All applicants must complete a Certification of Travel form, either acknowledging they are not coming from out of state or, if they are, are abiding by applicable orders.

>> They must pass daily temperature check and health screening questions, wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.

>> Applicants may defer taking the exam at no added cost

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