In response to the financial hardship that 2020 law school graduates would face due to the indefinite postponement of the bar exam, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court Stuart Rabner will allow students who have not taken and passed the bar to practice law in New Jersey.
The order is also meant to fulfill legal needs during the COVID-19 public health emergency, which some lawyers say will cause an influx of pro bono legal needs, including those addressing employment law and domestic violence cases.
Under the temporary rule, for which he consulted with the deans of New Jersey’s law schools, graduates who have not yet taken a bar exam may be authorized to practice under the supervision of an attorney in good standing who has been licensed to practice for no less than three years. They may enter appearances, draft legal documents and pleadings, provide legal services to clients, engage in negotiations and settlement discussions and provide other counsel consistent with the practice of law, as long as they sit for the first bar exam scheduled after graduation.
The exam, originally scheduled for July, has been postponed until fall.
“It’ll have a positive impact, more pro bono related. Letting them make appearances in court gives us the opportunity to put a lot of them on the pro bono work given the needs of the situation,” said McCarter & English LLP Firmwide Managing Partner Joe Boccassini. “For these law students, this is a prime opportunity for them to very quickly get experience that they might not get otherwise.”
Boccassini and practice group leaders have been working with McCarter Pro Bono Partner Michelle Movahed and organizations like Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in Newark to set up virtual legal clinics for phone or video conferences where people can call in and be set up with an attorney to help navigate their current legal needs, like the benefits being offered by federal government and housing issues related to rent and mortgage payments. These legal clinics are a great spot for new McCarter lawyers to cut their teeth, he explained.
“We’re bringing in a class of fall associates in October, and [now we can give them] a bit more range in what they can do, and [the rule] gives the law firm the ability to put them in situations earlier than we might have,” Boccassini said.
According to Bonnie Frost, name partner at Einhorn Barbarito Frost & Botwinick PC in Denville, the new rule isn’t much different than the current rule that permits law students to appear in court under the supervision of a lawyer for uncontested issues such as divorce and adoption.
“This ruling from Justice Rabner certainly makes more stringent what these people can do because the anticipation is that they’re going to be supervised in a sense they have more requirements on them than the law students. They have to be fingerprinted, they have to be reviewed by the Committee on Character, before they’re authorized to appear in court,” Frost said.
Every licensed attorney in New Jersey has passed a review by the Committee on Character. Law students, like the ones Frost mentioned, do not have to pass the committee to appear.
Per Rabner’s order, attorneys are invited to volunteer to help review the character of those that wish to practice law before taking and passing their bar exam.
“Ordinarily, that review process can take months. The Committee will endeavor to expedite the process. For years, volunteer attorneys have reviewed bar applications. The Court invites additional attorneys willing to volunteer to contact the Committee,” the order said.
Frost and Boccassini don’t believe the new rule will affect their firm’s hiring processes. Michael Gross, co-managing shareholder of Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla PC in Red Bank, agreed that the order would have no real effect on firm hiring.
“[I’d have] no second thoughts. We hire people based upon their grades in law school, what their activities in law school are, what their interests are, writing samples. If we think they’re competent, and would fit in well, we would hire them,” Gross said. “We generally hire first-year people out of law school before they pass the bar anyway. They’d just be able to do more.”
Frost did say, however, that the current state of affairs might affect the types of attorneys firms are looking to hire.
“People want to understand about the CARES Act, or about their rights under unemployment, or as an individual contractor. People are raising more of those types of questions, and the more people live with each other and can’t get away from each other, there could be more instances of domestic violence,” Frost said.
Gross, who said he “feels generally positive” about the order, also said he believes that it sets “a healthy precedent.”
“It recognizes the fact that this may be a hardship on the current graduating third-year law students,” he said, “and it tries to alleviate that hardship to some extent.”