Since Alaska’s first documented case of the coronavirus in March of 2020, our lives have drastically changed. However, the Alaska State Bar plans business-as-usual regarding an in-person bar exam, scheduled to occur Sept. 9 and 10 at the Anchorage Sheraton. Sure, the Alaska State Bar canceled its conference set for October due to the concern over the coronavirus. But canceling the in-person bar exam in consideration of the health risks to examinees seeking to become licensed in Alaska? No, simply not on their agenda. Currently, I, along with 74 non-household members, are scheduled to travel and congregate in order to become licensed.
After exhausting all other options to compromise with the Alaska Bar, a group of seven recent law school grads, myself included, sued the Alaska Bar to compel an option other than an in-person exam. Diploma privilege to qualified applicants is the only solution that makes the most sense during these times of heightened coronavirus cases in Alaska. Online exams would seem to be a reasonable option but ask Florida — they had to cancel their exam three days before it was scheduled because of software issues. To date, there is no software company prepared to administer such an exam. Washington, Oregon, Utah and Louisiana have already adopted diploma privilege, and I believe there are more states to follow, and my hope is that Alaska is one of them.
Juneau is my home. I am an Alaska resident of 18 years and a licensed veterinarian. In 2016, I was appointed to serve on the Alaska State Board of Veterinary Examiners and now chair that Board. In 2017, I made the determination that I could serve the State and my profession to a higher level if I obtained my J.D., so I enrolled in law school at Seattle University. Seattle University appealed to me because of their ties to Alaska through their Alaska Program, and I completed my entire third year of law school in Alaska. However, now, the very state I wish to serve through my work chairing a health professions board is unreasonably requiring me to risk my own health and safety to become a licensed member of the Alaska Bar. I have spent countless hours in Health Professions Boards Chairs COVID-19 meetings — these meetings (conducted through Zoom) bring all of the health professions together to help their licensees continue to provide health care services to Alaskans in a safe manner. Based on my professional understanding and experience, it is my personal opinion that not one of the Health Professions Boards would be in support of requiring an in-person exam involving 75 people during this critical phase in the state’s pandemic response.
Forcing examinees to undergo serious risk to their health (and to the health of their loved ones, other household members, and communities) is unconscionable during this pandemic. That concern is heightened for travel to Anchorage where the bar exam is scheduled to be held, as Anchorage is currently listed as a “red zone” indicating extreme risk due to coronavirus. It’s time for the Alaska Bar to drop the mentality of “I had to do the bar exam, and so should they” and reflect that these are truly unprecedented times. This isn’t about getting out of a test – this is about compromise during a pandemic. State health authorities advise against any unnecessary travel and avoiding groups particularly in indoor settings — the Alaska Bar should not only strive to minimally support efforts to heed those recommendations, but should act as a leader for members of the Bar in how to operate responsibly in a pandemic.
The examinees who wish to serve the state and its people are simply asking for respect for health and safety, and an in-person bar exam is exactly contrary to such consideration. Diploma privilege for qualified applicants is the only reasonable solution. Do not continue to kick the can down the road with additional uncertainty and postponement. Adopting diploma privilege to qualified applicants will properly support incoming professionals and their communities while maintaining the integrity of the Alaska Bar.
• Rachel K. Berngartt, D.V.M., J.D., is chair of the Alaska Board of Veterinary Examiners.