I gave birth to my first child 8 weeks ago and took the bar exam last week. For a time, this grueling combination did not seem possible – and not because of the exhausting nature of both experiences. But thanks to the Illinois Bar Examiners, who granted me and three other nursing mothers the essential accommodations to pump breast milk for our babies during the exam, I now await the test results.
I recently moved to Illinois from California, where I already am licensed to practice, and needed to take the Illinois bar exam to work here. With planning and preparation – and the support of my family – I was confident that I could take the exam so soon after giving birth.
My daughter, like other newborns, eats every two to three hours, and sometimes as often as every 90 minutes. Taking the bar exam required full days away from her, so I needed to pump on a similar schedule. If that schedule was not maintained, my breasts could become painfully engorged – distracting my concentration from the exam and creating a risk of infection. On top of this, my milk production would be disrupted.
To pump throughout the exam, I needed an accommodation. I needed to pump in a private and sanitary place, and I needed adequate breaks to pump and attend to other basic needs, like eating and going to the bathroom.
I confidently submitted a request for these accommodations, consistent with my doctor’s recommendations. I knew that the bar examiners already make these kinds of accommodations for those protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. It seemed possible that the bar examiners might make minor adjustments to my requests, but it never occurred to me that they would deny my request outright.
I was shocked when I received a letter denying my request because nursing “is not a physical disability and therefore not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” They said I could leave the exam to pump in a restroom only during certain times – as opposed to when it was physiologically required – and that I would not be given any additional time to make up for the time it took to pump.
The complicated process would take approximately 50 minutes each time I needed to pump: signing out of the exam room, going to the Help Center where my pump would be stored, finding the nearest “family restroom,” pumping for about 20 minutes, cleaning up, storing the breast milk, returning the pump to the Help Center, returning to the exam room, and signing back in. Doing this multiple times in the day would make it impossible for me to successfully complete the exam. This was unacceptable.
I wrote the bar examiners requesting reconsideration. I also reached out to various organizations, including the ACLU of Illinois, to express my shock and disappointment. A blog on legal issues, Above the Law, published my story, and within days, it was picked up by the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, the Chicago Tribune, Cosmopolitan and various other media outlets and blogs.
In response, the bar examiners notified me that they had decided to grant my request. After receiving a letter from the ACLU of Illinois requesting a broader policy change for the benefit of all nursing mothers who need to take the Illinois bar exam, they informed the ACLU that they would change their policy so that anyone who needed this type of accommodation would be granted these necessary modifications. I have learned that at least three other nursing mothers benefitted from this change in policy during the February bar exam.
I applaud the Illinois Bar Examiners for making this change, meaning that I and other nursing women can pursue the requirements of this profession while meeting their personal and family needs. Now it is time for every state’s bar examiners to do the same.
Do you have a story about needing accommodations for pumping during a standardized or licensure test? Tell us your story.