Kansas attorneys, students anxious about taking bar exam during pandemic

The bronze statute of the University of Kansas' first law dean, James Woods Green, with a student, stands on Jayhawk Boulevard on the Lawrence campus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
The bronze statute of the University of Kansas' first law dean, James Woods Green, with a student, stands on Jayhawk Boulevard on the Lawrence campus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas attorneys and law school graduates are raising a red flag about health risks inherent in bringing more than 100 people next week to the University of Kansas for the two-day bar exam while coronavirus infection was on the rise.

Meryl Carver-Allmond, who is a Kansas appellate public defender, and Barry Grissom, a former U.S. attorney for Kansas, said resurgence of coronavirus ought to have triggered alternatives for individuals who cannot be part of that type of mass gathering on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“There is no perfect solution,” Carver-Allmond said. “It seems unfair to make law students risk their health by going to take an exam while lawyers and judges are doing everything on Zoom.”

Grissom said balancing the public health crisis with the necessity of law graduates to fully enter the workforce suggested there “should be some kind of reasonable accommodation.”

Graduates preparing for the test recommended Kansas follow other states and invoke a “diploma privilege.” It would allow graduates of accredited law schools to skip the bar exam, but receive a license to practice law after satisfying state character and fitness requirements. The group of former students said Kansas is one of two-dozen states conducting an in-person exam next week and one of only 11 states not to make significant alterations to the test offered either by a lowered cut score or shortened exam.

In addition, the law school graduates said they should have been given the opportunity to take the test alone in a room. The students requested their identities not be disclosed because of apprehension that someone in the legal community might not appreciate taking the controversy public.

Andrea Boyack, professor of law and business at Washburn University in Topeka, said the Kansas law examiners board required all examinees to sign a statement that they “voluntarily” assumed COVID-19 risks if they wanted to secure a seat at the July test. Her article in the Northwestern University Law Review said a similar waiver document was used in North Carolina and Mississippi.

“If these bar exam COVID-19 liability waivers had been presented as a hypothetical fact scenario on a contract law examination or, say, a bar exam, I would expect my law students to recognize several legally problematic issues connected with them,” Boyack said.

She said the fact that Kansas exam administrators were concerned enough about their liability to require an assumption-of-risk clause suggested they realized an in-person exam was imprudent at this juncture.

Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the Kansas Board of Law Examiners, said 114 people signed up to take part in the July test. These test-takers, including many graduates from the Washburn and KU law schools, will be divided among several rooms in two buildings on campus. These rooms have a capacity of 784, but none of the venues will exceed 20% of capacity.

Taylor said KU would follow local, state and federal public health guidelines. Examinees will have at least six feet of physical distance from others taking the test. Participants will arrive at the testing site at staggered times, each will have their temperature taken and all must wear a mask during the test, Taylor said.

She said law graduates were given the option of delaying the test until September or waiting until February.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.