Waiting: Virus holds fledgling lawyers hostage

Betty BeanInside 640, Knox Scene

Five months ago, Idi Melendez was deep into her last semester of classes at LMU’s Duncan School of Law and was getting excited about graduation. Her parents and little brothers were making plans to drive up from Chattanooga to celebrate. Her grandmother was going to fly in from Santo Domingo to join in. She was looking forward to the school-sponsored family cookout and having her folks here to see her get her diploma.


Once the festivities were done, Idi and her classmates were planning to hunker down for their next full-time job – studying for the bar exam, scheduled for July 28/29 – the last step toward her goal of becoming an immigration attorney.

But that was before the coronavirus turned her world upside down. The week before spring break, the school canceled all but a half-day of classes. Students were in limbo.

On March 13, LMU announced its pandemic plan: Classes would continue, but they’d be online-only, on the same schedule as in-person classes would have been. All social activities associated with the end of spring semester, including a formal graduate dinner and the Barrister’s Ball, were canceled. The building would be closed down for the rest of the term.

The school continued to make adjustments, and started offering video sessions for students who were quarantined with children during the day. They also temporarily abandoned the traditional ABCDF grading scale and adopted a pass-fail system.

“This greatly helped students as it was the fairest and equitable way to go about the whole situation under the circumstances,” Idi said.

She and her classmates finished up the semester, got their diplomas and started cramming for the bar exam. LMU’s study plan requires eight to 10 hours of study per day and is designed to get students to “peak” just before they take the exam, which was scheduled for July 28 and 29. Idi would have gotten her results Oct. 9, her 26th birthday. But on July 2, the state Supreme Court postponed the exam until September, which will cause financial hardships for many new graduates who had counted on being able to go to work as soon as they passed the bar. (Since 2019, Tennessee lawyers must pass the national Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.)

Idi hasn’t found the right job yet, which she now thinks may be a blessing because she’s seen friends lose positions they’d counted on due to the delay. She’s also more fortunate than many who are saddled with enormous student loan debt because she attended law school on a scholarship that paid most of her expenses. Born in the Dominican Republic, she is fluent in Spanish and has been using her unexpected bonus time working part-time as a court interpreter.

But it’s still an uncertain time.

When students and law professors petitioned the court to give the new graduates “diploma privilege” to allow them to start practicing law without delay, the response was to give the exam online, which brought another delay and pushed the test date back into October, which means the results won’t be available until December – too late to apply for the February exam in case of failure. The next available exam would be July 2021.

The test will be proctored via “artificial intelligence,” which ushers in a whole new set of worries.

“If we have technical difficulties and we attempt to call to inform them, we fail because we cannot have our phones in the room in which we are taking the exam. There is no number (to call) for technical difficulties.

“If a person walks into the room during the exam, we fail. If we go to the bathroom, we fail. If a pet walks in, we fail. If we look away too many times, we fail. If there is any sound in the background, we fail. And we are not allowed to have any scratch paper.”

Reports of test-day glitches have started coming in, and it’s unclear how those cases will be resolved.

So, Idi’s waiting and watching. Nobody knows where the bottom is, and it’s not much comfort that law school graduates all over the country are in the same bind.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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