Jessica Gaudette-Reed, a 2020 graduate of the University of Florida Frederic C. Levin College of Law, discusses the need for diploma privilege for Judge Advocate General selectees...
This year’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Student Program selectees cannot afford a postponed bar exam or supervised practice alternatives that require bar passage at the next administration. The challenges faced by 2020 Bar Examinees across the country have a common thread, and those of us fortunate enough to be chosen to serve our county are no different. Lost wages and benefits, job insecurity (and the housing and food insecurity that follows), and rescinded offers are realities that we face in solidarity with our civilian peers.
The Navy requires that JAG selectees have a passing bar exam score in order to go to Naval Justice School (NJS) or, if in a state with diploma privilege, be fully admitted with no strings attached before attending NJS. Naval Justice School is required to begin practicing as a JAG and is a ten-week course that exposes new Judge Advocates to the military legal system. Prior to NJS, selectees must attend Officer Development School (ODS). ODS is a five-week course that provides the basic framework for serving as an officer in the US Navy. Although selectees do not need to have passing bar results to attend ODS, every attempt is made to align ODS and NJS classes as closely in time as possible. This is in part because we do not receive pay or benefits between schools.
This is a delicate balancing act in a normal year, but in the wake of COVID-19, it has made the jobs of the detailers and recruiters who helped us get to this point more complicated and left many of us facing uncertainty about how to begin planning our futures. The Navy, and presumably the other branches, have proven more agile than I can remember. I have already served in the US Army National Guard, so I did not expect the monumental shift in training dates, priorities, and logistics to be so nimbly executed. It is a testament to the care that the services take with their new colleagues. It is a bright spot of leadership where many of us feel failed by our states’ Boards of Bar Examiners.
Examinees have been presented with delayed exams and supervised practice alternatives because of the dangers that COVID-19 posed to in-person bar exams. These solutions are unsuitable for 2020 examinees, and in the context of JAG accessions, they are particularly inappropriate. Delayed exams and provisional licensure with the eventuality of a bar exam prevents JAG selectees from being assigned a duty station (a particularly acute challenge for selectees with spouses who will need to find work in a new location or children who will change schools). Delays prevent selectees and their families from receiving military benefits such as health and dental insurance, housing stipends, and various forms of student loan repayment. Delays will lead to the grace period on our student loans shrinking, possibly leaving us with an obligation to pay when we do not have stable incomes. Less pressing, but equally as important, our time for Public Service Loan Forgiveness will not begin to accrue. Selectees are a resourceful group of individuals, but given the lack of transparency we are experiencing from our states’ BBEs, we cannot give private employers firm start and stop dates to fill the gap while we await orders to go to our schools so that we can serve our country. Further, while supervised practice may work in some situations, the military does not have procedures so that JAG selectees can work as supervised civilian practitioners. We will have to find civilian employment to fulfill these criteria, and as mentioned above, without clarity we cannot offer them any assurances about our start and end dates.
Granting emergency licensure to 2020 examinees, with some supervisory component or Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirement, provides a path forward. It is a way for us to earn our licenses with some certainty about what the next year of our careers will look like. It may seem drastic, but 2020 examinees have done everything that has been asked of them. At the beginning of this pandemic, we all assumed that we would be sitting the bar exam in July alongside our peers. We were anxious, but we were equally proud of having the opportunity to engage in that rite of passage. We have fought hard to get to this point, and we saw it almost as a consolation prize after the pandemic took away the possibility of a traditional graduation. As the pandemic wore on, it became increasingly clear that an in-person exam was not feasible, and thankfully, some Supreme Courts (including the one in my home state of Florida) ordered the administrative wings tasked with carrying out the exam with finding a solution that would not become a “super-spreader” event. As well-intentioned as this was, online exams exacerbate inequities, and they have proven to be unreliable and unpredictable.
Assessing minimal competency is necessary to protect the public. The challenge that COVID-19 poses to examinees and the communities they hope to serve has plunged all of us into uncertainty. Challenges such as these require innovative and forward-looking solutions, and as a class, we expect that from our leadership. Employer affidavits, increased CLE requirements, law school certification, and supervised pro-bono services are all ways to bridge-the-gap before practice. This will not only provide guidance for each of us to plan our lives, but it will also expedite the entry of qualified, eager candidates into the legal field at a moment when underserved communities need them the most. The emergency waiver of the examination requirement is the most equitable way forward for those who wish to serve their communities and those of us fortunate enough to serve our country.
JURIST carries extended coverage of Bars Exams in the Pandemic.
Jessica Gaudette-Reed is a 2020 graduate of the University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law. She commissioned into the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps in early 2020. She is a Ronald E. McNair scholar and Operation Enduring Freedom Veteran. She currently lives between Gainesville, Florida and Alexandria, Virginia with her partner.
Suggested citation: Jessica Gaudette-Reed, JURIST – Student Commentary, August 13, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/08/jessica-gaudette-reed-jag-selectees-diploma-privilege/.
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