When Brianna Hill, a recent law school graduate in Chicago, felt what she thought might be her water breaking as she took the bar exam in her home office on Oct. 5, she did not leave her chair.
She knew that if she moved outside the vision of the artificial intelligence proctor, she could be disqualified. That would mean having to wait until February to take an exam she had spent four months studying for.
Instead, she continued writing a legal argument, and she went to a hospital only after she had completed the two sections administered on the first day of the two-day online exam. On Oct. 6, less than 24 hours after giving birth to a son, she finished the final sections at a table attached to a hospital bed.
Many are applauding Hill’s determination. But some recent law school graduates say her story highlights long-standing issues around when and how a person must take the bar exam — issues that have been amplified by the pandemic.
Just as Hill said she had tried to tune out contractions, other applicants say that they had to navigate other stressors while taking the exam — like not being able to go to the bathroom, and failing to be recognized by the facial recognition software.
“This is a story of heroism absolutely, but heroism in the face of extreme structural inequality in the legal profession and general apathy to those of us who are about to enter it,” said Pilar M.H. Escontrías, co-founder of United for Diploma Privilege, an organization that says its trying to reform the way the bar exam is administered to make it more humane.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners says that rules for taking tests online — such as prohibiting test takers from exiting the computer camera’s view during any of the four 90-minute sections — were created to prevent cheating. There is a 30-minute break between each day’s sections, which are shorter than they would normally be for an in-person exam. Any recent technical issues that have arisen with remote testing are being reviewed, a spokeswoman said.
When Hill graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in May, the Illinois bar exam was scheduled for July 28. Melissa A. Hale, director of Academic Success and Bar Programs at the law school, explained that though some states kept that date, most postponed it twice and then moved the exam online in response to the pandemic. (In most states the bar exam is offered just twice a year.)
Hill learned of the Oct. 5 and 6 dates and calculated forward. That was just two weeks before her Oct. 19 due date. She could not be sure when she’d go into labor — but what seemed quite likely was that, at 38 weeks pregnant, she’d want additional bathroom breaks. She emailed Illinois bar examiners seeking accommodation but her request was denied, she said.
Hill said she was seated in her home office, about 45 minutes into the first section of the exam, when she felt something.
“I thought, really hope my water did not just break,” she said. When she stood up about 45 minutes later, it became clear that was precisely what had happened. She knew she had a 30-minute break before the second section, so she called her midwives at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois.
They assured her that she didn’t need to come to the hospital just yet, so Hill logged on to the second part of the exam.
Hill’s contractions started shortly after she began the second section. After finishing, she devoured half a rotisserie chicken, then her husband, Cameron Andrew, drove her to the hospital. Just after 10 p.m., after what she estimated were three hours of labor in the hospital, Cassius Phillip Hill Andrew arrived.
She was thrilled. She was also determined to finish her exam.
The next morning, after little rest, Hill handed the sleeping baby to her husband. From the sliding table attached to a hospital bed in a nearby empty room, she completed the exam’s final two sections. During the 30-minute break, she nursed her son.
Hill’s ordeal drew attention on social media, and horror stories about other people’s bar exam experiences have been circulating. Hill learned that she was not the first woman to ever go into labor during the bar exam, though no one had heard of anyone giving birth halfway through it.
To make due with this year’s online requirements, some test takers said they resorted to wearing diapers or urinating in their seats. One woman reported withdrawing because she got her period during the exam.
Rebekah Merrill-Callaway, who recently graduated from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said she tried repeatedly to get tech help when one part of the exam would not load for her. It was only after she began tweeting about it, she said, that she was able to get someone on the phone to resolve the issue.
Others say they didn’t bother taking the online exam because they were so fearful that they would be accused of cheating for accidentally moving too much or going off screen — something that certain disabilities make hard to avoid. Elizabeth Gil, a recent graduate of Duke University School of Law, decided to wait until in-person testing resumes for this reason.
“The reality is that requesting accommodations (as I know firsthand) is an extremely grueling, exposing and expensive process,” Gil wrote in an email.
It’s up to individual jurisdictions to decide whether a person can receive accommodation, said Valerie Hickman, spokesperson for the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Examiners are strict about timing to maintain “test security,” she added, noting that a task force was evaluating the system to make recommendations for the future.
As for Hill, she won’t know if she passed the bar exam until December. But she’s feeling optimistic that adrenaline helped compensate for the lack of sleep.
“I have no regrets,” she said.
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