July 27, 2012

California Bar Examination

Sacramento Convention Center
 The place where I took and passed the bar exam in July 2008

Since the California Bar Exam's annual summer administration was given this past week, I thought it would be apropos to devote a piece to my experience with the Bar Exam. That, and I did not want to write about wills/trusts this week.

Every attorney licensed in California has taken and passed the California Bar Exam. California does not have reciprocity with any other state, meaning that any prospective attorney or attorney licensed in another state must take California's Bar Exam. One rationale for this is to prevent attorneys from retiring to California and saturating the legal market. This means that every California attorney has taken the same rite of passage towards licensure, passing the California Bar Exam.

I took the exam a few summers ago in Sacramento at the convention center along with a few hundred other test-takers. I went to law school in Sacramento, McGeorge School of Law to be exact, so fortunately I did not have to travel far. Since I hand-wrote all my exams in law school, I decided to hand-write the Bar Exam as well. Most of law school friends said I was (a) dumb (b) stupid (c) crazy, or a combination of those adjectives. I was undeterred because I was most comfortable with it.

Following a few months of studying, interspersed with daily runs at the local high school track to keep me sane, I sat for the exam at the end of July. I remember walking into a huge auditorium with rows of tables. I cannot say how large the room was but it seemed to hold maybe 250 people? The exam room where people used a computer to write was massively larger, maybe 500-700 people or so from what I was told.

The exam is three days long with a daily morning and afternoon session. Each session is 3 hours long. The first day is composed of essays and a performance test, e.g. write a legal memo. The second day is entirely multiple choice. The third day is again essays and a performance test.

A few of my memories unrelated to the exam include:

1. seeing a person cry their eyes out before the morning session on the first day,
2. hearing that a classmate had failed to register properly for the exam and not being told that he could not take the bar until the week of the exam, so he had to wait until February to take the exam,
3. seeing the person seated ahead of me in the convention room not show up for the third day because he knew he already failed the exam by rushing through the exam the first day,
4. hearing my friend incorrectly say the word "replevin" over and over again during a lunch break (it was a term used in one of the essays)      
5. having a splitting headache when the exam was completed
6. sitting on the Lightrail on the way back home thinking I passed the exam

A few months later, the results came back and my suspicion was correct, I passed the exam. Of note, the wait time in California is brutal. The exam is administered on the last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of July. The exam results are released at 6:00 p.m. the Friday before Thanksgiving. This gives examinees more than enough time to ponder their result for an agonizing amount of time.

A negative aspect for successful applicants is that the State Bar does not release your score to you. The concern is that unsuccessful bar examinees will scrutinize a successful examinee's test to show that a grader wrongfully graded their exam. Still, it would be nice if the State Bar released your exam to you when you passed on the condition that you keep it confidential and return it.  

A few weeks later I was sworn in as an attorney by alumnus Justice Scotland of the Third Appellate District of California, a McGeorge alumnus, and have been practicing law ever since.

In retrospect, I look at the Bar Exam with fondness because I passed the first time. All the hours of studying eventually reaped the desired result, bar passage. Very few of my classmates did not pass the first time and those that did not eventually passed.

Much is made about the difficulty of the California Bar Exam. Critics will rattle off various statistics and cite famous people, such as our current governor, who failed the exam as proof of its difficulty. My opinion is that if you went to a legitimate law school and follow a regimented study schedule, you should pass. The people who consistently fail are usually those that went to a mediocre law school or are not scholastically gifted. The State Bar releases a detailed report on its website outlining the demographics of each Bar Exam's administration so you can make your own conclusion.