How to handle bar exam applications amidst COVID-19

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[ Makenzie Way, 2020 Graduate at the University of Pennsylvania ]

Makenzie Way, 3L Graduate at the University of Pennsylvania

This was a big week for me. For starters, I officially graduated from law school (goodbye forever issue spotter exams). And then to top it off, I submitted my application for the District of Columbia bar.

If you’ve followed my law school journey, you may be thinking “hold up! D.C.? What happened to Boston?” Well, COVID-19 happened, that’s what.

In early January, I spent a good chunk of my school printing out the Massachusetts bar exam application. Unlike many states, Massachusetts conducts its own character and fitness test, thus the lengthy application. By the beginning of March, my application was complete and sitting in a sealed envelope ready to be mailed when … BOOM! … bar exam delays.

With test dates up in the air, Massachusetts with many other UBE states, paused the acceptance of applications. Thus, my beautiful application packet continued to rest, waiting for the day when it could be mailed in. But wait, things got more complicated.

In late April, Massachusetts announced that it would be giving priority status to applicants who had attended an in-state law school and were sitting for their first or second time. This in-state priority status was combined with limited seating capacity, too. The decision wasn’t unique to Massachusetts. Many states followed suits and I’m sure it’s a decision that has impacted a lot of you. For me personally, this caused some major panic since I had attended school out-of-state. It seemed unfair that my choice to attend a higher ranked school outside of Massachusetts was now going to impact the career path in Boston that I had spent the last five years working toward … but that’s the way the world works apparently.

(After a quick descent into hysterics that my mother promptly dragged me out of) … I realized that it was time to take action. I compiled a list of the UBE states where application deadlines, or late-filing deadlines, hadn’t passed yet, as well as the requirements for each state and the associated costs. I ended up with a handful of potential states that included New Jersey, New Hampshire, District of Columbia, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.

Working through my list of potential UBE states, I realized a few important takeaways that may be helpful to anyone else stuck in this same type of situation:

  1. Some states, like New Hampshire, do not allow courtesy seating. What that means, practically speaking, is you cannot sit for the UBE in New Hampshire if you have no intention of being a registered attorney in New Hampshire. Other states allow you to transfer your UBE score to any UBE state. Takeaway: make sure the state you register in is either the state you’re planning to work in or a state that allows score transfers.
  2. Many smaller states have limited seating. For instance, Connecticut. Practically speaking, that meant my chances of receiving a seat in those states were lower and thus my cost-benefit analysis had to shift accordingly. Takeaway: if you have a smaller budget, take into consideration the number of seats available versus your priority status when deciding where to apply.
  3. Multiple states have priority seating. For instance, Massachusetts’s priority is local students, Connecticut’s priority is local students and students from select Massachusetts schools, and D.C.’s priority is for recent ABA graduates writing the UBE for the first time. Takeaway: try to apply to states where you’re in the first tier.
  4. Each state has its own unique application process and it varies with regard to usage of the NCBE’s character and fitness test, recommendation letter requirements, notarization and pro bono hours requirement. Takeaway: make sure you meet the requirements before submitting an application – in most states, application fees are nonrefundable.
  5. Application costs vary greatly between the states. Takeaway: create a budget and prepare for potential cost increases.

Based on all this, New York got discarded because I hadn’t completed the necessary pro bono affidavits and didn’t have the time to do them. New Jersey was next because it seemed likely they would receive an influx of applications from worried New York applicants. Finally, Connecticut and New Hampshire got discarded because of their small size and priority status decisions. Thus, I made the decision to apply to D.C., where I was tier one priority. I still would apply to Massachusetts when their application opened as a plan B, if necessary.

My decision was made *small sigh of relief* but I wasn’t finished yet. Now I had to navigate the D.C. application process. The first thing I noticed is how many of these websites are outdated. It’s 2020. It seriously should not be so difficult to find the information you need. After awarding myself a Ph.D. in website navigation, I figured out that the D.C. bar application would open on May 18th, that I needed to submit the NCBE character and fitness application (but not receive the results) before submitting my UBE application, and that I would need to submit and receive the law school certification form from my university since, unlike many states, D.C. does not accept forms submitted on behalf of students by law school officials.

Law school certificate emailed ✓

Now, for the character and fitness test.

If you haven’t already completed the NCBE application, be prepared to tell them every minuscule detail about your life from the time you turned 18 until the present day. It took me approximately a day and a half since I needed to track down the contact information for my supervisors from my college jobs; but alas, I clicked submit and then nearly threw up when the $400 price tag flashed in front of my eyes. I quickly reminded myself that if all went well and I got accepted then, (a) it was more than worth it and (b) my firm would reimburse me.

Next step: UBE application

Stress levels through the roof, I set an alarm for every hour, on the hour, from midnight until applications finally opened at 8 a.m. I expected it to be grueling, similar to my Massachusetts application which required formatted reference letters and an attorney signature. In a pleasant turn of events, the D.C. application was pretty straight forward. Having already completed the mind-numbing NCBE application, the D.C. UBE application took approximately 20 minutes, asking straightforward questions about when I graduate(d), where I attended law school, my academic conduct during law school, etc. The cost was also relatively low, around $230 when all was said and done.

After clicking submit and holding my breath while my subpar internet opened the next page, I was told that my application had been successfully uploaded and would now be forwarded to the committee for the final acceptance decision. No real time frame was given, but the confirmation email that I later received said, if successful, I would receive my ticket number and additional information in August. Fingers crossed I hear back before then because if not, I’ll have to decide whether to eat the cost and apply for both D.C. and Massachusetts to be extra sure that get a seat for the September bar exam.

In summary:

  • Research states with open applications. Create a list and include any relevant application requirements, deadlines and costs
  • Create a budget to determine how many states you can realistically apply to, should you want to apply to multiple, to be safe.
    • Remember, UBE scores can be transferred, so if you get a seat in a state that allows courtesy seating, you can transfer the score to your desired state later on; meaning, you only need to sit for the UBE once.
  • Complete the NCBE character and fitness application ASAP if you’re unsure where you’re applying. They have state-specific applications and a general one for this reason. Include this cost in your budget and give yourself a full day to complete it.
  • Apply as early as possible, even if you are in the first-priority class, to maximize your chances of being accepted.
  • Update your BARBRI bar exam profile and inform your employer of any changes to your UBE plans.
    • Don’t worry, you don’t require new BARBRI bar prep books if you’re taking the UBE in a different jurisdiction.
  • Try to stay positive!

To make sure you have everything covered, check out this bar exam checklist from the BARBRI website, too.

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