The Law School Class of 2020

The law school class of 2009 did everything right. They went to college and did sufficiently well to be admitted to law school. They went to law school and did sufficiently well to graduate. They took the bar exam and did sufficiently well to pass and be admitted as lawyers. And for far too many, that’s where doing everything right came to a crashing halt.

There were no jobs. They were out their tuition, or accumulated significant debt. They were out years of their life. They were out their dream of practicing law. They graduated into the Great Recession and there was nothing they could do about it. It wasn’t their fault. It took years before the job market got better, but for the class of 2009, there was no salvation. They were lost and, eventually, mostly forgotten.

At the time, there were many cries for system change for graduating law students. A nationalized bar exam. Reducing the length of law school from three years to two. Reducing the number of law schools, so they weren’t cranking out more product than the market could absorb.

At the same time, the “access to justice” movement was born, recognizing that there was a substantial societal need for lawyers by people who couldn’t afford lawyers. It was a well-intended but naive movement, since lawyers still needed jobs and had to eat, so the aspiration of lawyers providing free legal services for the sake of society left a disconnect that its promoters, legal academics getting law school paychecks while traversing the nation for the sake of the poor, couldn’t manage to connect up the nasty details of lawyers earning a living with lawyers serving the needs of the poor.

The solution was a combination of lawyers giving freely of their time as if they were priests taking an oath of poverty, and as if their landlords didn’t want the rent paid, and the government covering the pay of lawyers representing the poor against the evil monied interests of society. Being a “public interest lawyer” became a goal of empathetic law students who were taught that in an adversarial system, only one side represented goodness and beauty, and it was their duty to be on that side.

Eventually, the voices of the class of 2009 faded into the background. Nothing really changed in how law schools were run, how lawyers were made and what became of them after they got their pat on the head and were sent out into the world. Some  experiments were run, but failed. As the legal job market stabilized, people looked forward and forgot what was behind them. The class of 2009 was lost, which was terribly unfair, but there was nothing to be done for them and so they were largely forgotten. I remember them.

The class of 2020 is about to graduate. Their last classes will be taken on Zoom, their final exam graded pass/fail. But the July bar exams have been canceled, which means that they may well have done everything right and yet not be able to overcome the final hurdle before taking the oath of office. What becomes of them?

An online petition is calling on the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to extend a “one time, sui generis” diploma privilege to all graduates of ABA-accredited law schools registered for the July 2020 Bar Exam. Such an expanded privilege is one of several suggestions in this multi-author paper about what to do about the Bar Exam in the current circumstances.

“Multi-author paper” is putting it mildly.

The Bar Exam and the COVID-19 Pandemic:
The Need for Immediate Action

Claudia Angelos, Sara J. Berman, Mary Lu Bilek, Carol L. Chomsky, Andrea A. Curcio, Marsha Griggs, Joan W. Howarth, Eileen Kaufman, Deborah Jones Merritt, Patricia E. Salkin, Judith Welch Wegner

The paper is an aggregation of ideas going back to the good old days of 2009, the ones either tried and failed or raised and forgotten. The crux of the paper is that there will be a desperate need for lawyers for those who can’t afford lawyers, and the loss of the July bar exam will have a deleterious effect on the class of 2020.

At the same time, it is essential to continue licensing new lawyers. Each year, more than 24,000 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools begin jobs that require bar admission. The legal system depends on this yearly influx to maintain client service. The COVID-19 crisis, moreover, will dramatically increase the need for legal services, especially among those who can least afford those services. We cannot reduce entry to the profession at a time when client demand will be at an all-time high.

Whether the assumptions are accurate is certainly subject to debate. There is always “demand,” but that doesn’t mean there’s money to pay for it. There are tons of lawyers already out there, and newly-minted lawyers aren’t exactly useful in terms of client service, most being walking malpractice machines for the first few years of practice.

Paul Horwitz provides a lengthy argument as to why this concern for the class of 2020 is misguided, the existence of law as a profession being about clients, not the job prospects of law students. He is, of course, right, and while the concerns expressed in the multi-author paper are tied up in a client-centric bow, it’s just for show to provide cover for reinventing the path to admission. Regardless of how new lawyers are minted, they’re still going to be lousy lawyers until they gain some seasoning.

But I remember what happened to the class of 2009, when circumstances that had nothing to do with them destroyed their prospects, killed their great expectations. Some would have been awful lawyers, but some might have been brilliant. No one will ever know because they never got the chance to prove their worth.

Will the cancellation of the July bar exam, and maybe the one after that, mean the class of 2020 won’t come online until the fresh-faced class of 2021 gets to take the bar as well? Will these law students who did everything right and aren’t responsible for COVID-19 be the class lost to the pandemic?

With Horwitz’s admonition that “it’s all about the clients” in mind, it would be awful to see the slaughter that happened to the class of 2009 happen again to the class of 2020. A pandemic may not be the time for a wholesale reinvention of a system, but it shouldn’t ruin the chances of another class of law students whose worst offense was the desire to become lawyers.

What one-time-only-sui-generis-best-method to serve the interests of clients can be debated, but debate it quickly, make a call even if it’s highly imperfect, but don’t burn another class of law students. The carnage of 2009 was awful and grossly unfair. If we take nothing else away from that fiasco, let it be that we not repeat the same mistake of destroying the futures of law students who did everything right.

22 thoughts on “The Law School Class of 2020

  1. Chris Van Wagner

    This piece provokes three responses.

    1. Passing the bar exam has little to do with becoming a competent lawyer. But we knew that.

    2. Wisconsin has a “diploma privilege” whereby if you graduate from one of the two domiciled law schools (Marquette or UW-Madison) you need not take the Wisconsin bar, facing only character review. The bar has not seemed to suffer any worse level of imbecility or incompetence than the other states in which I’ve been licensed (NJ and Illinois).

    3. In 1980, Ralph Nader visited Myron Taylor Hall in Ithaca and gave what to a very few law students seemed an inspiring talk on becoming our era’s social justice warriors, aka “public interest lawyers”. Even Nader though understood economics because he said to get a job stocking shelves at the Grand Union at night and be a lawyer for the consumer while the sun was up. Maybe he should talk to these co-authors.

    All of which makes me think that a one-time waiver of the bar exam won’t make one iota of difference in the quality of the bar, nor is it likely to lead to any more “free social justice lawyers”. Heck, let the 2020’s loose to tackle what 2009’s had to tackle, rather than shut them out of the game. Emphasis on “one-time” because COVID. Not a subterfuge to overhaul the “unfair” admission system but maybe a chance to re-evaluate it top to bottom while not strangling any 2020’s who could be Darrows, Goulds, Boies’ or the like.

    1. SHG Post author

      Horwitz makes an interesting point about the Wisconsin diploma privilege, about the rigors imposed in exchange for the free-ride, such that remembering the privilege while forgetting the rigors lends itself to a deeply flawed analogy. You should read his post.

      As for the myriad issues surrounding the bar exam itself, who can’t resolve them in a single conclusory sentence and reinvent the entirety of the practice of law, amirite? There are few things more appreciated than reductio ad absurdum.

      1. Chris Van Wagner

        Excellent point by you and Horwitz – and with no matchbook law schools here, plus Wisconsin’s notably well-administered law school academic requirements, one cannot say that admission to the bar by diploma privilege amounts to a free pass. At the same time, this year at least, a onetime “extraordinary” remedy for an equally extraordinary time in our lives seems within reason. In no could or would I endorse the Co-authors’ approach. At the same time, by dint of Horwitz shedding light on a decent alternate bar admission system that requires some academic and professional rigor and oversight, perhaps some states with less law schools than NYS could move to one like WI. We don’t need more participation trophies, but perhaps 2020’s need at least a puncher’s chance.

        1. SHG Post author

          I don’t know what the “right solution” is, as each fix has its problems, and I don’t disagree with you that the bar exam is no assurance of competence (although it does weed out those lacking the minimal competence, as it’s just not that hard to pass). But the paper offers some decent alternatives which could serve as stop-gap measures so we don’t destroy another class of young lawyers.

    2. andrews

      2. Wisconsin has a “diploma privilege” whereby if you graduate from one of the two domiciled law schools (Marquette or UW-Madison) you need not take the Wisconsin bar,

      In Florida, we have some excellent law schools.

      We also have a large Thomas Cooley campus. From this it follows that a simple diploma privilege is probably unwise.

  2. B. McLeod

    This is like a small mine detonating somewhere in the middle of a huge battle. Plenty of existing lawyers are out of the office or out of work entirely in the pandemic. Client businesses are closing or closed, and court calendars in many jurisdictions limited to “emergency” matters. In the law firms, the taxes are already swinging, and the razor dance of equity partners has begun. It’s The Yarn of The Nancy Bell all over again.

    Further, outside the profession, all the other kids coming out of school (except possibly medical or nursing school) are equally hosed. There is no point in singling out law grads for our tearful lamentations. Life is not always fair, and law practice has always been illustrative of that postulate. Welcome to the real world, class of 2020.

      1. B. McLeod

        They never liked my Peeps dioramas either. What’s wrong with those people?? (Rhetorical question).

            1. B. McLeod

              I did think about that, but I could not find any materials around the house that were suitable for crafting Peep-sized TP rolls. And, with stay-at-home orders in effect, I had my doubts as to whether a mission to Hobby Lobby for this purpose would be “essential.”

  3. Charles Kramer

    I don’t know what to do about this year’s class. But I have often thought about returning to the pre-law school model of serving as a clerk in a law office, preparing for the bar exam, taking it and then becoming a lawyer. Instead of spending three years incurring debt, the prospective lawyer could hopefully earn a decent if not luxurious living. Plus, the day to day experience may more readily show the prospective lawyer if the practice of law is something he or she actually wanted to do. Perhaps the clock cannot be turned that far back. But it may be worth pondering.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a lot to be said for clerking your way to the bar, although in the olden days, lawyers were more generalists and so a clerk would get a breadth of legal education that may not be readily available today from lawyers who specialize. Also, clerks accepted shit pay, occasional “abuse” by way of criticism and the “condescending tone” of their lawyers. Would that be the case today?

  4. PseudonymousKid


    Shutter the lowest performing law schools already and stop accrediting new ones. There are too many schools and too many grads. Like most law school classes many graduates won’t end up in the law. It’s been tough for a while. With each year that passes, though, the decision to go to law school becomes less and less the “right” move. This isn’t a fantasy world where service guarantees citizenship; new grads aren’t guaranteed anything but a chance.

    Good luck to them. We’re all hurting with people staying at home and not fucking their lives up as much such that our services might be nice to have and worth paying for, if they even have the money to pay at all. You can cry for the doe-eyed new grads, but I won’t. Give them a prop up given the pandemic, but it won’t help in the end.


  5. Kathryn M. Kase

    One can only wonder if the authors would be willing to waive the national exams that are precursors to licensing for medical students, or waive similar exams for engineers who wish to be licensed? My guess is no.

    I’m admitted in three jurisdictions, one where I was able to waive in (Hi, D.C.!) and two where I had to take the bar exam (TX and NY). And, frankly, I come down on the side of requiring the Class of 2020 (except for those in WI, of course) take the bar exam. The bar exam has many imperfections, but it winnows and, frankly, given the quality of practice I see, it may not winnow enough. For that reason, I don’t think eliminating a bar exam — whether national in scope or individualized for each state — for Class of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic is the answer.

    1. SHG Post author

      A public defender supervisor, who shall remain nameless, who supervised a particular public defender, who shall also remain nameless, who has amassed a significant social media following for his/her/its hyperbolic/myopic/dishonest activism, informed me that he/she/it was extremely full of his/her/its legal brilliance when in his/her/its estimation, he/she/its ability as a lawyer ranged from mediocre to absolutely fucking awful. Yet, he/she/it passed the bar. How hard could it be?

  6. Alex

    My anecdotal experience here in Washington State is that there is less work for lawyers right now, due to the closing of courts except for emergency matters and many people being financially squeezed. So I don’t think it is at all necessary to make accommodations for admissions because of potentially not having enough lawyers.

    On the other hand, denying the ability to practice and possibly locking the class of 2020 out of the practice of law really seems unjust.

    So why not let them practice with supervision? Washington State has an admission to practice APR Rule 9, which allows a law school student or recent graduate to practice law in a limited matter under the supervision of an experienced attorney. I suspect (hope?) most states have similar rules. Why not just temporarily modify this rule to add some additional time so that recent graduates can practice under supervision?

    This protects the public by not allowing those who are grossly unqualified to practice law, and it lets those recent graduates work as attorneys, provided they can find someone to supervise them (which arguably is an improvement over allowing newly minted attorneys go off and practice without supervision). It allows new graduates to work practicing law, assuming they can find work.

    1. SHG Post author

      WA did the 3LT thing, which I thought was a great idea for access to justice, but it appears to have been a complete failure as it never gained traction. People still want “real” lawyers. I wonder if the class of 2020 gets an alternative to the bar, will they too be tainted in perpetuity for not being “real”?

      1. Alex

        It isn’t legal technicians. They are under APR 12. You are completely correct that clients generally prefer real lawyers with as much experience as possible. They can still hire them if they have the money to spend.

        Those temporarily admitted under APR 9 become real lawyers once they pass the bar. Many attorneys in WA take advantage of this rule while they are in law school (assuming they can find an employer/supervisor).

        So hopefully there won’t be any taint.

  7. april

    So in other words, a bunch of law professors want to make it easier to pass the bar so people will keep enrolling in their worthless law degrees. Great.

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