Legal education adjusting to uncertain times caused by coronavirus

A couple of years ago when his company Test Max, Inc., had a little fun on an April Fools’ Day by offering technology that potential law students could use to cheat and score a 180 on the law school entrance exam, Mehran Ebadolahi was surprised at the number who responded to the ad.

The incident at TestMax, the online provider of prep courses for the LSAT and the bar exam, underscored the importance of security and integrity in testing as the coronavirus has upended legal education. Fallout from the public health crisis includes law schools now conducting classes entirely online, the cancelation of at least one LSAT and states questioning whether they will be able to give the bar exam in July.

Ebadolahi does not believe scrubbing the March LSAT will have much impact other than giving applicants more time to prepare. However, a delay in the bar exam would be much more significant.

“I think it’s something that’s going to be a very serious issue with states if this doesn’t subside,” Ebadolahi said of COVID-19.

So far, the Indiana Supreme Court has not pushed back the July bar exam, but in an order issued March 31, the court noted the situation is still evolving.

“As a result of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear whether the State Board of Law Examiners will be able to administer the July 2020 Indiana bar examination as scheduled,” said the order signed by Chief Justice Loretta Rush.

The order did extend the filing deadline for the July bar exam to May 4. Also, the court has provided a contingency plan for refunding the applicants’ filing fees if the exam is not administered in July.

On average, 488 individuals have sat for the Indiana bar in July over the past five years, according to data from the Indiana Office of Admissions and Continuing Education.

Before they can take the bar exam, Indiana third-year law students are having to complete their final semester in unprecedented conditions. Moving courses online, altering grading systems and canceling graduation ceremonies have become part of the law school curriculum for the spring 2020 semester.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law has switched from awarding letter grades to giving either a satisfactory or fail notation, according to a letter  Dean Austen Parrish sent to students and faculty. All letter grades are being waived, and the law school is working to have the students’ individual transcripts annotated to explain the change in grading was part of the response to the coronavirus crisis. Also, the new grading scheme will not affect students’ grade point averages or be considered when determining class rank.

In addition, IU Maurer is switching from in-person final exams to take-home tests that students can complete remotely. They will be allowed to consult their books, notes, outlines and other class materials.

Parrish said deciding to make the changes was difficult.

“We know that many in our community have been dislocated, while others have significant unexpected child and family care responsibilities, including health issues to deal with,” he wrote in the letter. “As we considered what approach to take, it became clear that the distinct trend among law schools nationally was to move to Satisfactory/Fail (Credit/No Credit, Pass/Fail) grading for this semester. The majority of law students favored this approach, and the (IU Maurer Student Bar Association) board advocated the approach that the faculty adopted.”

IU McKinney has also adopted a satisfactory/fail grading scheme, according to Dean Andrew Klein.

Notre Dame Law School is giving students a choice. The institution is keeping the current grading system in place, but students can opt to have the grades for their law courses converted to pass or no credit, according to assistant dean Kevin O’Rear.

Professors will not know whether the students have selected the pass/no credit option and, therefore, will grade as normal. Only after the letter grades are submitted will the law school registrar apply the pass/no credit elections.

Valparaiso University has extended the deadline for undergraduates wanting to switch to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system. Whether the law school is also changing its grading method for its final graducating class is unclear.

Would-be law students are having to grapple with uncertainty as well as they await word on the status of the Law School Admission Test. The Law School Admission Council canceled the March test because of the outbreak and has not made any announcements on the test scheduled for April 25.

David Killoran, CEO of Powerscore, a company that helps individuals prepare for graduate and professional exams including the LSAT, said the elimination of the March test will impact law school applicants who were on waiting lists or wanting a better scholarship offer. As he explained, some people will take the LSAT in March as a kind of do-over. They are hoping to get a higher score that will either move them off a school’s waiting list and onto the roster of accepted applicants for the fall 2020 semester or put them in a better position to negotiate a financial package.

However, Killoran believes a cancelation of the April and possibly other test dates has the potential of dampening enrollment in the fall 2021 semester. As of March 10, the overall number of applicants to law schools across the country was off 3.1% compared to 2019, and having to contend with delays in the LSAT may discourage some from seeking a law degree altogether.

Killoran is advising his clients to avoid taking a gloom-and-doom outlook. Circumstances may change by the beginning of May, he said, so those wanting to go to law school do not have to make any decisions today. Still, he is also telling his clients they should have a plan B in case the upheaval continues.

A few days after the March LSAT was cut, Ebadolahi was preparing to host a virtual office hour to provide some comfort and support to the potential law students who were suddenly in limbo. He noted when law schools consider applications, the LSAT score far outweighs the undergraduate grade point average in importance.

Like Killoran, Ebadolahi has concerns about what may happen if the dates for the LSAT keep getting delayed. But in the short-term, Ebadolahi is advising his clients to take advantage of the extra time they have been given and continue to “practice, practice, practice” for the all-important test.

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