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Aspiring lawyers will sit for bar exam in NM

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Recent George Washington University Law School graduate Amy Lattari will make the 30-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to Albuquerque later this month to lock herself inside an Airbnb for 14 days ahead of the New Mexico Bar exam.

Another recent graduate from Texas will be coming in a borrowed mobile home with her husband and two toddlers.

Such is the expectation for all aspiring attorneys from outside the state who plan to sit for the in-person test New Mexico is holding next month.

“I’ve kind of been thinking there’s a good chance (the test) is going to be online,” said Lattari, who has taken a job with the Law Offices of the Public Defender in Albuquerque. “Now that I’m thinking about driving there, I’m getting to the point where, ‘OK, this may happen.’ ”

Across the country, states are coming up with a hodgepodge of strategies to license new attorneys in the middle of a global pandemic.

New Mexico is forging ahead with plans for an in-person bar exam Sept. 9-10. About 345 lawyers are expected to sit for the exam, and more than half are from out of state, said Barry Massey, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

And examinees from across the country have been told that to sit for the test they will also have to provide some sort of proof that they have satisfied the state’s public health order that requires people quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state, according to interviews with four people coming from other states to take the test.

In addition to the quarantine pickle, another issue the officials will have to address is how to hold the test with the state’s ban on gatherings of more than five people.

“We are focused on the health and well-being of all exam participants, and are diligently working on a plan to assure the exam can be safely administered,” Sophie Martin, executive director of the New Mexico Board of Bar Examiners, said in a statement. Bar exam officials last week declined to discuss details of how they will administer the test.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office, said the bar exam board has explained their plans for administering the test to the state Department of Health and the Governor’s Office.

“There is a thorough plan in place with strict rules for the administration of the exam that is in accordance with the public health order and does not violate the mass gathering rule,” she said in an email.

So far, states that have already held their bar exams had to deal with added challenges.

In Michigan, the state’s remote bar exam fell victim to a possible cyberattack, which caused systems to crash, and some students lost about a half hour of test time, according to The Detroit News.

“Yesterday’s examination issues made the experience harder, and I am so sorry for that,” Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack wrote in a letter addressing the glitch. “While this may not be consolation, be assured that we will find out exactly what went wrong and address it for those affected and for future applicants.”

In Colorado, a test-taker tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after an in-person exam in Denver in late July, according to The Denver Post.

The American Bar Association last week passed a resolution urging legal jurisdictions to cancel their in-person tests and offer the tests remotely.

Some states have canceled the exam entirely. Delaware will issue temporary limited practice licenses. In Louisiana, the in-person exam is canceled and the state is admitting some qualified students to the bar without a test, and others will have to take a remote test, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ website.

Connecticut, Georgia and Washington, D.C., are among the jurisdictions with remote tests.

Arizona is offering a remote test that can license attorneys in the state. It will also offer an in-person test for students who want a score from a Uniform Bar Examination, or UBE.

Several years ago, New Mexico began using the UBE, said Serge Martinez, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico.

The UBE is a standardized bar exam, and a student’s score can allow them to practice law in other states that use the same exam. A remote test would not qualify as a UBE, Massey said. Some of those examinees coming from outside New Mexico for the test are doing so because it is a UBE.

Martinez said the bar exam is a crucial moment in a young lawyer’s life. Many recent law grads, he said, likely have jobs lined up that are contingent on them passing the bar.

“People plan their lives around the bar exam. It’s a career-defining moment,” he said. “But it’s also important for life.”

The recent law graduate from Texas said she was having panic attacks over the thought of leaving her young family for more than two weeks. That’s why the entire family decided to come in an RV for the test.

Chris Opila, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, spoke to the Journal while quarantined in Las Cruces.

Opila said he’s one of the lucky lawyers from other states taking the exam in New Mexico.

A native of the Phoenix area, Opila is launching his career clerking for a federal judge in Las Cruces. He just moved to New Mexico a bit earlier than originally planned in order to complete the quarantine requirement.

He said a potentially stressful situation would develop if exam officials change plans for the test closer to the exam. The test has already been rescheduled from its original date in July.

“The exam is one of memorization and regurgitation. You sort of have to peak at the right time,” he said. Last-minute changes “are really messing with individuals’ level of preparation.”

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