Ruling lets law students join firms while awaiting delayed bar exam — and they appear eager to hire

Peter Verniero.

Attorney Peter Verniero is still busy as ever, even if he’s taking calls at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. And his law firm, Sills Cummis & Gross, isn’t doing any less hiring.

“We’re always in the market for good lawyers — lawyers that fit a need,” he said. “I don’t know if this crisis has really changed that to a significant degree, at least not at this stage.”

But the next generation of potential law firm hires hasn’t had the luxury of taking New Jersey’s bar exam, scheduled for July, from home. This year’s exam, which is necessary for graduates to apply for jobs, was postponed until the fall.

Thanks to a ruling this week by the state Supreme Court, they’ll be able to apply to law firms — and, at least temporarily, practice law — anyway.

Recently, law firms have sought to fill voids on often aging, retiring attorney teams with young talent, according to New Jersey State Bar Association President Evelyn Padin. So, the Supreme Court’s decision, which it made after consulting with the state’s law school deans, keeps those opportunities open for both law firms and would-be new attorneys.

But Padin and others are honest about the decision: It’s just as much an attempt to spare the more than 500 graduating law school students in New Jersey this year from any financial hardship.

“Many of them have loans exceeding $100,000,” she said. “So, what we’re trying to do is get them into the marketplace so that they can earn some type of living practicing law. And I believe that’s good for the profession overall.”

Kathleen Boozang, dean of Seton Hall Law School, praised the decision. She expects allowing graduates to enter the profession at about the same time as they would have in a typical year will not just serve the students well — or, for that matter, the law firms.

“It enables the entry of new lawyers in the profession who will be able to serve the public in tumultuous times,” Boozang said. “So many people are facing risk with respect to eviction, or need help accessing the funds made available by recent legislation. There’s a need for their public service.”

Under the order that the Supreme Court issued Monday, graduates are allowed to provide legal services to clients and conduct other attorney business under the supervision of attorneys in good standing who have been licensed for a minimum of three years.

The job applicants must have applied to take the first bar exam scheduled after graduation and must have gone through a review conducted by the Supreme Court Committee on Character. Padin, as well as the Supreme Court itself, implied this part may be challenging. The court’s announcement called for volunteer attorneys to help review the hundreds of certifications the committee will receive.

Verniero doesn’t suspect the actual hiring of a graduate who hasn’t yet completed their bar exam will be awkward for a law firm. He also doesn’t anticipate firms will abstain from bringing one of these applicants on board.

“I believe firms will fairly consider these applicants in these special circumstances,” he said. “We’ll continue to look at the whole picture of an applicant’s background, skills and so forth.”

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