Lawyers filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday asking that law students who could not take the recently canceled August Florida Bar exam be allowed to practice law immediately.
More than 100 attorneys signed on to the petition proposing an emergency rule that would allow those who signed up for the exam to become licensed attorneys after a period of supervised practice, without needing to take the test.
“We deserve better,” said Bianca Maria Baez, a recent Florida State University College of Law graduate who helped prepare the petition. “All we wanted was a fair and safe exam and it seems we are being punished for speaking up and demanding exactly that.”
Baez, 35, was a lawyer in the Dominican Republic before applying for the Bar in Florida. She studied around the clock for this month’s exam, waking up each day at 7 a.m. and reviewing until nighttime. She has a job lined up with a Tallahassee law firm, but can’t start until she passes the Bar exam, which for now is tentatively rescheduled for October.
“October is not an option now,” she said.
The Florida Bar exam has been through numerous rounds of changes. The test was first moved online July 1 after COVID-19 health concerns raised by students. A sit-down test was originally scheduled for July 28 and 29, but the Florida Board of Bar Examiners moved it to an Aug. 19 virtual format.
Then, the exam was canceled on Aug. 16, just days before the scheduled test date. The cancellation came after a Miami Herald article on test takers’ complaints that the software being used for the remote exam caused data breaches and performance issues on their computers.
The Bar examiners stated on their website that administering a “secure and reliable” remote bar exam would not be possible and that the test would be moved to an unspecified date in October.
The new petition states that “moving the goalposts” each time prospective lawyers were ready to take the exam created financial hardships, loss of employment opportunities, loss of health care and psychological stress for applicants.
“Applicants to the Florida Bar were subject to differing plans to take the exam, unproven technologies, and an absence of notice or knowledge with regards to their future professional and personal life,” the petition states. “This is combined with the anxiety and requirement to be prepared to take the Florida Bar.”
The brief was filed by Florida attorneys Matthew Dietz and Brian Tannebaum along with assistance from four law students who planned to take the exam.
Tannebaum said in a statement to the Herald that Florida must provide a way for law students to become lawyers during the pandemic.
“This emergency petition, prepared with input from our affected and harmed Florida Bar Applicants, provides a detailed road map for the Florida Supreme Court to meet its stated goal of allowing our Bar applicants to practice law as a result of the Board of Bar Examiners’ failure to administer the Bar Exam,” Tannebaum said. “We hope the Court will quickly implement this proposed Rule.”
On Wednesday, when the exam was supposed to take place, Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady issued a video apology to examinees for the late cancellation of the August exam.
“We acknowledge and accept the criticism that has been directed at the Court and the Board of Bar Examiners,” Canady said. “Our inability to offer the bar examination in August was a failure. We apologize for that failure.”
Canady said the court is authorizing a “stop-gap program” that lets applicants work in law under the supervision of a licensed attorney until they can take the bar exam in October 2020.
“We also understand that a three-month delay in licensure is a serious matter,” Canady said, “a disruption in life that takes a financial toll and an emotional toll. And we know that for some applicants, such a delay will cause severe hardship.”
The new petition isn’t the only action taken by law students and their supporters as a result of the cancellation of the exam.
Some bar examinees launched a petition on Aug. 16 calling for Florida Board of Bar Examinees Executive Director Michele Gavagni and Chair David Reeves to resign from their leadership positions. The petition has garnered more than 2,200 signatures as of Thursday.
“In their complete and utter failure to administer a summer 2020 bar exam,” the petition states, “Gavagni and Reeves have demonstrated that they are incompetent and should no longer hold leadership positions on the FBBE.”
Raul Ruiz, the director of Bar preparation at Florida International University Law, started an online fundraiser to financially help FIU Law graduates who are unable to become practicing lawyers because of the cancellation of the August exam. The campaign has raised more than $5,000 as of Thursday.
“The FIU Law Class of 2020 has been unable to obtain their law license and begin meaningful work as fellow attorneys alongside us,” the GoFundMe page states. “Their student loans, rents, car payments, food expenses, and other necessities of life await them. Given that their bar exam results likely will not be released until November, support for our fellow alums is ever more present.”
Anthony Russo, an attorney with The Russo Firm in Delray Beach and The Law Center, said he thinks the cancellation of the August bar exam is “terribly disappointing and unfair.”
“I can only imagine having gone through four years of college, three years of law school and getting ready for the bar and not being able to take it and to have my whole life being put on hold,” Russo said.
He said the delay in the exam will also create an issue for law firms looking to hire new attorneys who are straight out of law school.
“It’s going to be very difficult for these bigger firms who rely on expanding and bringing in young people and new blood,” Russo said.
Baez, a Bar applicant who helped prepare the petition, said law students have studied for too long and are now facing hardships because they still cannot be employed as attorneys.
“Now, the ball is on the hands of the Florida Supreme Court to do the right thing and permit thousands of law graduates to get to work,” she said. “Our state, employers and families need us more than ever.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.