It is regressive to return to in-person even if the previous exam was leaked: law professor
In an open letter directed to the Law Society and Attorney General of Ontario, licensing candidates registered to write the summer online barrister and solicitor examinations expressed their frustration and disappointment regarding the LSO’s decision to postpone the June bar exams to July and cancel online assessments.
Last week, the LSO said that the four-week shift from June to July is necessary to put a logistical plan to deliver in-person examinations in five cities across the province, including London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Windsor. The upcoming summer lawyer licensing barrister examination will now be from July 5 to 8, and the solicitor examination from July 19 to 22.
The LSO made this rescheduling decision with no student consultation, and the letter demonstrates just how upset students are, says Jean-Pierre D’Angelo, a summer licensing candidate from the University of Toronto.
D’Angelo says law students usually write their final exams in April and study for the bar in May to write the exam in June. However, this change means that licensing candidates will prepare in June, write the exam in July, and begin articling at the beginning of August.
“The LSO successfully administers the exam multiple times a year, and I don’t understand why such a logistical problem requires date changes that disrupt our lives at the last minute.”
The date change interrupts three months of exam preparation and a month of vacation, and D’Angelo says it takes an enormous mental toll on students. He says many students have already made travel plans or other arrangements for July. For example, a classmate had her wedding and honeymoon scheduled for July.
“The class of 2022 has seen unprecedented disruptions in our education due to the pandemic, and this poor planning on the LSO’s part has just added such an additional stressor to our lives that was unnecessary.”
D’Angelo is immunocompromised and says students like him are hesitant to write the bar exam in person in a room with hundreds of other people because of COVID. He says the situation provides challenging problems for students, and anything short of honouring the original date is unacceptable.
“We’re not dealing with hurt feelings. We’re dealing with real palpable difficulties placed on students’ and there needs to be a tangible change in how the exams will run.”
The LSO informed Law Times that the change in the delivery of examinations, from online to in-person, stems from the ongoing investigation into licensing candidates, which strongly indicates that examination content was improperly accessed through cheating, breaking the Examination Rules and Protocols, and compromising the integrity of the upcoming exam.
Wynna Brown, the LSO external relations and communications director, says evidence indicates the potential involvement of third parties in the exam malpractice.
“The Law Society has a statutory mandate to ensure entry-level competence in the public interest. Continuing with an online delivery in light of the ongoing investigation was not possible,” she says.
Brown says the LSO must ensure that upcoming examinations support a valid and defensible assessment process that will assist the licensure of the many candidates who have not cheated and are not under investigation.
“In the current circumstances, in-person delivery provides the necessary degree of security to ensure examination integrity and to protect the reputation of all those candidates who are in no way implicated in the investigation.”
Brown says the LSO encourages licensing candidates to reach out to them if they require assistance in rescheduling their licensing examinations.
“The Law Society recognizes the challenging impacts on candidates not involved in the investigationon,” she says. “Our efforts are focused on delivering a plan that allows those candidates not implicated to proceed with licensure as quickly as possible, in a defensible manner, in the public interest.”
Ryan Shah, another U of T licensing candidate, says that while the LSO needs to maintain the integrity of the examination process, it is an unreasonable balancing of interests to prioritize the integrity of the examination process over the mental health and wellbeing of several lawyer licensing candidates.
“Students who have studied three years of law school, gone through a pandemic and worked so hard to get here are being punished for a small group of students who have engaged in this misconduct.”
The LSO had much time to organize and place logistical contingencies to avoid these issues over the two years, and Shah says, “to throw their hands up and give up on doing an online exam that works for students and force through with an in-person examination is unacceptable for licensing candidates who have done nothing wrong.”
He says the open letter highlights a problem in the LSO’s decision-making which excludes student voices, the most vulnerable people affected by these choices.
“I know a couple of friends scheduled to write the Ontario and New York bar exam, and because of this change, they’ve decided to abandon the Ontario licensing process and work in New York, basically giving up on Ontario as a place to practice law.”
The LSO said there would be an online June examination, and Shah says they need to give students that option. “They just cannot take away choice.”
He says the LSO alternative to defer the exam to a later date is an ineffective accommodation. “The fact that the LSO has not provided any other form of accommodation and thought that compromised students and others who might be susceptible to COVID 19 might need another way of writing disregards the needs of the incoming class of lawyers this year.”
John Hale, a criminal defense lawyer and professor at Carleton University, says it is regressive to return to in-person assessments even if the previous exam was leaked. “It could be leaked again. Doing it in person does not mean that a student hasn’t seen a leaked exam and might have been able to prepare for it.”
The bar and solicitor examinations are open-book exams, so the idea of cheating on an open book exam is a little odd, Hale says.
With the technology developed through COVID, he says there must be a more creative, flexible way to let students write online exams other than requiring them to attend in person. “It just seems wrongheaded on so many levels. It seems clear that there was no input from any student representatives.”
Hale says the LSO should consult with the students on the setting and methodology of the exam and get some expert advice on how to do an online exam securely before taking this “retrograde step of going back to in person.”
“I hope the LSO rethinks this. It’s just going to leave a really bad taste in students’ mouths when they’re on the cusp of being lawyers.”