By Ona Alston Dosunmu
Could there be a worse year than 2020 to graduate from law school? The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the graduating class of 2020 couldn’t have a traditional graduation. Most jurisdictions didn’t have a July bar exam. In California, the earliest opportunity to sit for the exam was in October and, as was the case with other jurisdictions, there was a period of uncertainty about whether the exam would be online or in person. Taking the bar exam is stressful under the best circumstances.
In addition, we were all shocked by the televised killing of George Floyd and the protests and unrest that followed, which added yet another layer of stress. And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us. Meanwhile, 2020 graduates are eager to start their careers. As with so many things involving the pandemic, the legal profession, the regulators and the Supreme Court have all had to be creative and to adapt. One major adaptation was the creation of a provisional licensure program.
CLA took two positions in support of the law school class of 2020. First, early on in the pandemic, we urged clarity and speedy communication regarding the status of administering the bar exam. After it became apparent that an in-person exam could not be administered safely, we recognized two things: first, that none of the options facing the graduates or the profession were good, so decision-makers essentially had to pick the least bad approach; and second, that the moment called for creativity and flexibility. We supported the provisional licensure program so long as it entailed appropriate supervision, disclosure of one’s provisional status, and a requirement that provisionally licensed lawyers eventually take and pass the bar exam. The provisional licensure program as adopted by California meets these criteria.
The new Rule of Court, Rule 9.49, will allow eligible 2020 law graduates to practice law under supervision without having had to sit for or pass a bar exam. The program will serve the dual purpose of granting graduates employment opportunities and experience while waiting to sit for a bar exam and providing access to justice by allowing them to practice law. Provisionally licensed lawyers can provide a broad array of legal services for clients, provided the work is supervised by a qualified supervising lawyer. California is different from other states in that what a provisionally licensed lawyer can do is largely left to the supervisor, based on the provisionally licensed lawyer’s capabilities. The program will terminate on June 1, 2022, unless the court extends it. Currently, the program is open to those who graduated law school or became eligible for the bar exam between December 1, 2019, and December 30, 2020. To become provisionally licensed, eligible applicants must have employment or a volunteer opportunity already lined up and must submit a signed declaration from the lawyer who will be supervising them.
We believe it is important both for society and for the individual law school graduates that the class of 2020 begin their careers. There were tremendous unmet legal needs before the pandemic. We anticipate an even greater need for affordable and pro bono legal services as some of the temporary relief granted during the pandemic ends. Specifically, we anticipate an uptick in residential and commercial evictions and bankruptcies. Anecdotally, colleagues in family law are seeing an increase in divorces.
In terms of the individuals impacted and their careers, they need experience to advance in the law. Law school is a significant investment of time and money. Delaying the start of their careers could set the class of 2020 back professionally and economically in ways from which they may not recover. At a certain point, if individuals don’t find legal jobs, they may give up on the profession altogether.
Provisionally licensed lawyers (as well as law students) can join CLA for free. If you are a provisionally licensed lawyer, a supervising attorney or an attorney contemplating hiring a provisionally licensed lawyer, CLA has an online community dedicated to provisional licensure where members can connect. Access the Provisional Licensure Community by logging in using your CLA log-in credentials. We will post the relevant documents and updates about the program in the community.
To provisionally licensed lawyers, welcome to CLA and welcome to the profession!