External webcams, quiet rooms among details for first-ever remote bar exam in July

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The nearly 500 applicants who have registered to take the Indiana Bar Exam in July will need to have external webcams, quiet rooms and be prepared to write extensively for the test that will be given remotely for the first time because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A letter containing new details about the July bar exam is being sent to applicants and law school deans from the Indiana Office of Admissions and Continuing Education. Earlier this month, the Indiana Supreme Court issued an order that announced the state’s bar exam would be given in July, as usual, but would be trimmed from two days to one day and would be administered remotely.

The external webcamera is being required because it will give the proctors a better view than the camera that comes standard on many laptop computers, according to Bradley Skolnik, executive director of the Indiana Office of Admissions and Continuing Education. Along with seeing the applicant taking the exam, the proctor will also be able to see the desk, to ensure no notes are being used, and the room, to verify no one else is present and helping the examinee.

One proctor will be enlisted to watch 15 to 20 applicants take the July bar, Skolnik said. Each proctor will be watching the multiple examinees online at one time through a videoconferencing platform similar to Zoom.

“I think it will be a very effective way of monitoring the exam,” Skolnik said.   

The Indiana Bar Exam has allowed applicants to bring their laptop to the testing site and take the test on the computer rather than with pen and paper since July 2012. As in previous years, the July 2020 applicants will have to download and use the Exam 360 software, but they will be getting a discount, having to pay $65 for the program rather than standard price of roughly $115.

Essay and short answer

Nick Bauer, May 2020 graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is relieved Indiana is offering the bar in July and giving the test remotely. The Bloomington resident was concerned about the risk to his physical health if the exam had been given in-person because he would have had to find a place to stay overnight in Indianapolis and then sit near other test-takers for hours in a large hall filled with recirculated air.

The adaptation of the bar exam is one initiative the Indiana Supreme Court has developed especially to help the class of 2020 navigate these unprecedented times. Bauer helped write a letter that was eventually signed by law students across Indiana, asking the court not to postpone the July test.

“Indiana recognized the need to do something for test takers and the legal community,” Bauer said. “We’re all very impressed with the willingness of the state to say we’re going to find a solution even if nobody else does this.”

The exam itself will be administered for seven hours on July 28. Four hours will be devoted to the Indiana Essay Exam requiring applicants to write essays on six questions on Indiana law, and three hours will cover the short-answer section where applicants will write two or three paragraphs addressing 12 questions on topics drawn from the Multistate Bar Exam.

Typically, the Indiana Bar Exam is comprised of the Indiana Essay Exam along with the Multistate Performance Test, which requires the applicants to draft a motion or write a memo and the Multistate Bar Exam which is a 200-question multiple choice test. The essay questions that will be given in July 2020 are the same as would have been given had the pandemic not occurred but the short-answer questions are being specially crafted for the upcoming test by the Indiana Board of Law Examiners.   

Skolnik is confident the altered version will be sufficient to test minimum competency. “I believe in this very uncertain, challenging time, (the exam) will provide a reasonably sound measure of the applicant’s competency,” he said.

Despite the altered format, the passing score remains 264 points out of a possible 400.

Aaron Taylor, executive director of the AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence, asserted the shortened, one-day bar exam will actually be better than the regular two-day version.

Test-takers have so much to learn for the two-day exam that they get overloaded with information and, at best, gain only a superficial knowledge of the subject areas, he said. However, the topics for the one-day exam will be limited and more relevant to the practice of law, allowing applicants to go deeper into the subject matter and retain more.

The national bar preparation courses are geared toward getting applicants ready for the traditional exam format, but Skolnik expects applicants will still be able to benefit from the prep programs. The topics on the July 2020 exam are the same as the two-day test, he said. Also, he believes the prep companies are nimble enough to adjust for Hoosiers’ needs.

Bauer is not worried about preparing. “I’m just going to study like I would be,” he said. “If I know the material is adopted to the (new) format it shouldn’t be a huge concern.”

Wave of the future

The MPE, MBE and the Multistate Essay Exam are written and distributed every February and July by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. This year, because of the public health emergency, the NCBE had considered not making the tests for July 2020, which could have forced several states to forgo the mid-summer test.

Indiana was a part of that conversation but, according to Skolnik, the state was already moving forward with plans to offer the July exam made entirely of locally produced components. The discussion in Indiana about the bar exam began in March as COVID-19 was spreading in the United States, Skolnik said.

Initially the Supreme Court and Board of Law Examiners considered what would be needed to conduct an in-person test, but that option was quickly shelved because of the requirement to social distance and the concern about keeping the applicants safe. They then concluded offering the exam online would be better.

“Both the court and the board were committed to offering the July exam if possible because applicants wanted to take the exam so they could enter the job market as soon as possible,” Skolnik said. “The court and board reached the conclusion it was best to offer the exam online to give the highest level of certainty to the applicants.”

Delaying the test to September or October was not seen as an acceptable alternative. As Skolnik pointed out, the postponement not only would have hampered the applicants’ start of their career but also ran the risk of having the exam interrupted by a second wave of the coronavirus.

Also, 2020 test takers are still having to undergo character and fitness evaluations just as applicants have done in previous years. The pandemic has caused the court to allow the interviews to be conducted by way of videoconference or telephone instead of face to face, Skolnik said.

Twenty-three states are scheduled to give their bar exams in July, according to the latest information from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Another seven have scheduled tests for July and September, and 19 have postponed the July bar to either early or late September.

Indiana was the first to announce the test would be administered remotely. Since then, Michigan and Nevada have followed, the NCBE reported.  

Skolnik remembered the first bar exam he helped administer in July 2011, about three weeks after he had become the leader of what is now the Office of Admissions and Continuing Education. When the test was over, an applicant told him that had been the first time in seven years that he had taken a test that required the answer to be handwritten in a blue book.

That is when Skolnik realized the bar exam had to move to a computer format because that was how the applicants were taking tests in all their classes. Now, he believes bar exams will be given remotely as a matter of routine.

“I think this is the wave of the future,” Skolnik said. “The pandemic is the impetus for finding solutions to offering the bar exam remotely in the future.”

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