As the State Bar prepares for California’s first-ever online bar exam next month, the state Supreme Court rejected one alternative Wednesday, a request by a group of law school graduates to practice law without passing the exam.
A petition by two recent graduates, signed by nearly 1,900 students, said an online exam using little-tested software would be unreliable and unfair to low-income and minority students who lacked equal access to computers and quiet space at home. The justices denied a hearing on their request without comment.
But the court will soon consider another option, a plan by the State Bar to let law school graduates practice law in California under a licensed attorney’s supervision until June 2022, when they would have to pass the bar exam.
The bar’s governing board is scheduled to consider the proposal Thursday and, if approved, relay it to the court, which supervises law practice in California. More than a dozen other states have authorized supervised-practice plans since the coronavirus outbreak.
The exam, conducted twice a year, had been scheduled for July but was postponed to Oct. 5-6 because of the pandemic. As in many other states, California is conducting the exam online so that test-takers would not have to sit near each other.
The bar plans to use facial-recognition software to identify the students, and additional “proctoring” software to monitor them — plans that have drawn protests.
The American Civil Liberties Union says the recognition software is an invasion of privacy. Deans of most of the state’s major law schools have urged the court to allow an open-book exam, without remote monitoring, saying it “would decrease the stress for many taking the bar” while still requiring test-takers to show their knowledge of the law. Indiana and Nevada conducted open-book bar exams in July, the deans said.
In their petition to the court, Pilar Maragrita Escontrias and Donna Saadati-Soto said the recognition software had built-in biases that would not only fail to identify many minority test-takers but, by misreading their facial expressions, would wrongly accuse minorities of cheating.
“Any bar exam administered during this global pandemic is more likely to measure an applicant’s financial means, personal status, societal privilege, and/or generational wealth rather than his, her, or their knowledge of the law,” said the graduates, who filed their petition without a lawyer. Escontrias, who lives in Camarillo (Ventura County), attended UC Irvine Law School, while Saadati-Soto, of Cerritos (Los Angeles County), attended Harvard.
Despite their objections, both of them plan to take next month’s bar exam, Escontrias said in an interview. She said she hopes the court orders an open-book exam, which would relieve many of their concerns, though it “wouldn’t solve the underlying problem.”
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@BobEgelko