Bar Exam

“You are literally sitting in a hotel room 1 foot away from a bed. That was a really strange feeling,” says Eric Rodriguez, a 2020 University of Texas at Austin School of Law graduate who took the exam at the downtown Hilton Austin. Photo by Eric Rodriguez.

Among the many worries for people taking recent in-person bar exams during the COVID-19 pandemic, some were logistical: How could they maintain social distancing during the test? Would public restrooms be germ magnets? Could they safely eat with others?

Hotel rooms could be the answer to those concerns. Texas, which traditionally holds the state bar exam at large convention centers, recently administered its two-day in-person bar exam at Hilton hotels around the state. Each candidate took the test in his or her own room with their doors open while proctors patrolled the floors, offering technical assistance and watching for any testing irregularities.

“You are literally sitting in a hotel room 1 foot away from a bed. That was a really strange feeling,” says Eric Rodriguez, a 2020 University of Texas at Austin School of Law graduate who took the exam at the downtown Hilton Austin. The exam, administered Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, was also offered in Houston, Dallas and Lubbock.

The Texas Supreme Court cancelled its July in-person bar exam on July 3, and directed that the state administer an exam in September as well as an October online exam, which will be based on National Conference of Bar Examiner materials. No other jurisdiction has administered a bar exam in hotel rooms, says Susan Henricks, executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners.

Each test proctor was assigned up to 12 test-takers, who were instructed to put their personal belongings in the room closet, along with hotel items such as towels, water glasses, soap and Bibles. Proctors used zip ties or tape to seal closets before the test started.

During the exam, test-takers could have a hand towel, a bar of soap and toilet paper. They also could have water, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray. Masks were optional unless a proctor was in the room.

However, there were some complaints about proctors at the Hilton Americas-Houston not wearing masks during testing.

“The first day when my proctor checked my room, her nose was uncovered,” Anastasia Bolshakov, a 2020 University of Houston Law Center graduate, told the ABA Journal.

“The second day, I stood as far away as I could while my room was checked because my proctor’s nose and mouth were uncovered,” Bolshakov adds. According to her, the woman took off her mask when she was in the hall passing out test materials.

There was a “weird power dynamic,” Bolshakov explains, “so I felt uncomfortable asking the proctor to observe proper mask etiquette.”

Bolshakov also says many people spent their free time hanging out at the hotel bar and swimming pool, without masks.

At other locations, some test-takers reported sound issues.

Rachel Crooks headshotRachel Crooks, a 2020 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

“The first day of the exam, I laughed because they used whistles. It was a very weak whistle,” says Rachel Crooks, who took the test in Austin. The 2020 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law says some people also didn’t hear verbal start times given by proctors.

Meanwhile, at the Dallas Hilton Anatole, test-takers heard stop and start commands from different floors that didn’t apply to them, which was confusing, says Steve Gaylord, a 2020 Texas A&M University School of Law graduate.

September candidates on the cusp of not passing the exam should be admitted anyway, considering the stop and start time issues, according to him.

“If we hadn’t gotten all those commands for other floors that didn’t apply to us, I would have given them a B+ on this thing,” says Gaylord, who started law school following three decades of working for IBM in technical sales and project management.

“The idea of a hotel room is a good idea. They did pretty well, considering it was their first time. Hopefully, it will be better if they do it again,” he adds.

If they really need to, the state will do another hotel bar exam, but the first one required much more work than the traditional in-person exam, Henricks says.

She’s unaware of any COVID-19 infections from July in-person exams in other jurisdictions.

“Honestly, I think we could have done it in the convention halls, with space, social distancing and masks. This has been the year of guessing games,” she says.