The Bar Exam

“Many months ago,” I think it was in February, I made a decision to take the Florida bar exam, move to Florida to be closer to my parents and grandmother – basically your typical “mid-life leap-of-faith.”  I’m not going to call this a crisis, more of an “inventory control.”  The months leading into the exam were very stressful, and not just because of the exam.  Life doesn’t stop just because you want to change course mid-stream.  There were still kids, PTA, field trips, illnesses, all the normal stuff a mother of three kids would be going through.  There were also personal things going on that I won’t mention, only to say that I was carrying more baggage than some, but probably not as much as others.

Registering for any state bar exam is a test in and of itself.  You have to gather up information about your entire life, compile it into a correct form, and “properly submit” it.  Fingerprints, records of past bar applications (and mine was lost…) original birth certificates – basically you are challenged to deal with every bureaucracy you never wanted to contact, and ask something of them.  My first attempt to apply for the exam was a total flop.  Thank God I had the words of my Weight Watchers leader in my ear, talking about the weigh in she had where she ate half a sheet cake and gained twelve pounds in one week – she called it her finest week, because THAT was the week that grounded her, the week she decided not to quit.  Receiving that rejection of my application was horrible, but it made me realize – I couldn’t give up.  I HAD to take that exam.

And so, Tuesday morning, I was there.  The night before I had scoped out the parking situation around the Tampa Convention Center and decided I would leave before 7:00 (check in was scheduled for 7:45 and the hotel was five miles away…)

When you first walk into the “waiting places” outside of the bar exam, you can feel the energy rising from every person there.  Over 3500 applicants were there at that testing center, hoping to pass “this time,” whether “this time” was their first, or they were pulling a Cousin Vinny going in for the sixth time.  There were so many  who looked fresh out of law school, but there were others like me – people in the middle of their lives, changing locale, changing location, changing career.  I met a woman who lives and practices in Michigan who wanted to take the exam so her successful practice could better serve “snow bird” clients.  I think there were even some who were close to retirement age, perhaps wanting to retire but still practice on the side.  The reason Florida doesn’t give reciprocity to other bar admissions is because they want people who “dabble” in law after retirement to demonstrate that they are putting in the time and effort required to adequately represent their clients.

When you walk through the door to the waiting areas, everyone is looking.  Looking for a familiar face, looking for the place to check in everything they carried from their car or hotel room, looking for the line to get into the room where badges will be distributed, looking through that outline one last time to hope that they really DO have it down…  I recalled taking the New York bar, all those years ago, having left my baby with a baby sitter to ride the train into Manhattan for each of the days.  Things were different then – I found a friend in the crowd, a fellow Emory grad who had taken the Georgia bar in July and was now taking the New York bar because her fiance was in New York.  I may have run into someone I knew from the BarBri course I had taken.  This time, I was too far removed.  All of my friends taking the Florida bar exam had already done so.

The first day is the most intense day.  Everyone is arriving, not quite knowing what to expect.  Right before the morning session there is that sense of panic.  “Where do I go to get my photo badge?”  “Where is my seat?”  “Where are the bathrooms?”  “What if something goes wrong?”

Technology has invaded the bar exam – more people were carrying laptops than NOT on the first day to complete their essays.  I was one of those old fogies who decided to hand-write.  Not because I don’t embrace technology, but because the idea of loading special software onto my laptop was a bit off-putting.  I was glad of my decision when instructions were given to laptop users to collect downloading instructions and meet a 10:00 p.m. deadline for uploading their essays.  All I could think was “Thank God I don’t need to worry about the hotel’s internet connection!”

I was in special seating, probably because my husband was originally scheduled to take the exam, but was unable, and they did not want to seat us together.  The people around me needed to be near an exit in case they needed medical attention, or needed special seats, or had to carry medication.  I did have a medical issue I had not thought to bring up – I am anemic, and at certain times of the month it can be a bit of an issue.  Especially when I am stressed, and tend to bleed heavier.  Lucky me, this was that time.  Product placement – I have to say thank God Stayfree makes great “overnight” ultra thins… I went through about six of them each day.  TMI.

In our little area of “special seating,” there were no “essay answer booklets.”  We had to wave our hands around for proctors to bring us booklets, and they brought us the wrong booklets first – the “continuation” books rather than the “color-coded answer books.”

Before each session begins, you are required to submit the fingerprints of your right index and middle finger on a sheet that they leave at your table.  Everyone has assigned seats, no one is allowed to sit in a seat other than their assigned seat unless they are given special permission to do so.  This is because on the multiple choice exams, each exam has a different form.  All exams have serial numbers, and before anyone is allowed to open that exam book, they must verify that the answer sheet serial numbers and form numbers match the serial numbers and form numbers on their books.

I won’t get into details about any questions – I can’t – I signed a waiver!  I will just say that the essay involves three questions, each question is at least a page long, and you have three hours to finish all three essays.  My personal experience has been that if you finish the essays early, you’ve done something wrong.  Oh, a couple of minutes is fine, but you don’t want to finish more than fifteen minutes early.  So I was really happy that I only finished a few minutes before time was up.

There is about an hour between morning and afternoon testing sessions.  Half of us were at our cars, feeding our cell phone addictions…

The Florida multiple choice questions were horrible.  One hundred questions designed to ask “finer points of law” – the kind of finer points that, were I practicing, I would whip out a book and double check!  Yes, the answer is somewhere in that question, but there are also three answers that are wrong, and at least one of them is designed to lure the person who “overthinks” the question.  And then, the questions themselves on both the Florida multiple choice and Multistate Multiple choice sometimes take several readings through to make sure you are reading the question correctly.  But I finished that section with enough time to check the 50 questions I’d put “stars” next to because I was unsure of the answer, and of those, I felt confident of at least some after a second review.  I left the second half of the first day a few minutes before the “fifteen minutes” warning.  When you reach the fifteen minute warning, you are no longer allowed to use the restroom or leave the testing center until the test is completely over.  There are countdown clocks throughout the room.

If, during the exam, you need to use the restroom, you have to carry your badge and all your testing materials with you, place them on the table beside the monitor, and sign when you enter and exit the restroom.  (There is a clock next to the sign-in sheet.)  No talking is permitted in the restroom.

The Multistate Bar Exam was administered the second day.  There isn’t a lot to say about a 200 question exam that wasn’t said about the 100 question exam for the state portion, except that the Multistate is “general law,” and sometimes tests things based on old common law principles that have been written out of every jurisdiction in America.  I know I am capable of passing the MBE – I did it 12 1/2 years ago, fresh out of law school, but I’m not sure if my memory at 39 is as good as my memory was at 27.  I’ll find out in September!

Yes, they take that long to grade the exams and post the results.  They not only have to figure out how many people got the “correct answer,” they have to form a grading scale based on how many questions people around the country got right or missed, and if many people missed the same question with the same incorrect answer, that question then becomes “suspect”.  Each state has to read and grade essay questions, scoring them for content and for style.  It’s really kind of amazing they pull this off twice a year when you think about it…

So that, in a nutshell, is the bar exam.  I consider it a major accomplishment that I took the exam, that I finished the exam, that during the exam I was able to set aside both nerves related to the exam and stresses that I had outside of the exam and focus on what was in front of me.  It’s an endurance test as well as a skill test, and I really do believe that FINISHING the test is, pass or fail, an accomplishment.

Pass or fail, I will pass at some point in time. 🙂

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