Passing the Bar Exam

One Saturday morning in perhaps April or May of 1986, I walked down the stairs from my apartment to the foyer that contained the mailboxes. The sun shone brightly, belying the bitter spring cold outside. Pulling out my mail, I noticed the return address entitled  Minnesota Board of Law Examiners. My hands started shaking, and I began gulping air in deep breaths. I tore open the letter and my eyes looked for the first sentence. I saw the words “We are pleased…” YES! I had passed the Minnesota Bar Exam.

I wasn’t expecting the letter until Monday, and it struck me that the Board of Law Examiners, in an act of mercy, had saved about 300 of us from a sleepless Sunday night by sending the notifications a day early. It was a bittersweet moment, nonetheless. Since I had decided some time ago that I would not actually practice law, it represented the end of three intense years that, to paraphrase Jimmy Breslin, I loved and hated in equal measure: My legal education.

About the Bar Exam: It was a two day examination that was required of those holding Juris Doctor degrees prior to receiving a license to practice law. The first day was an 8 hour session of multiple choice questions called the Multi-State exam, as it was used by several states. The second day was 8 hours of essay questions–my last adventure with a stack of blank blue books, blurry eyes, cramped hands, and a pen–which had been such an important part of the last three years. Or maybe it was a half day of multi state and half day of essay both days–I can’t remember. We law students thought we were pretty tough with a two day exam. Now the CPAs had a three day exam, but we heard it was divided into subjects, and they could re-take simply those subjects they failed. For us it was all or nothing.

Now many of us wondered why, after three years of legal education and holding a Juris Doctor degree, we needed yet another exam. One of the reasons was that in law school we were taught the principles of law, not the specifics of Minnesota law. After all, there were 50 state forums and one federal one, all with their own laws. And in fact, many of my classmates did return to Wisconsin to practice law and presumably continue proving their oft-stated assertion that they could out-drink any of us from Minnesota!

In any case, when faced with this question in my presence, one of our professors, in a stern and aristocratic tone, informed us that “law school is not a Trade School!”  And to think we were presumptuous enough to sully our righteous quest by concerning ourselves with trivial matters such as earning the filthy lucre…

Due to the high stakes involved in the bar exam, there was a cottage industry of companies that prepared Minnesota bar exam study materials and presented a week or two of evening lectures. BRI (Bar Review Incorporated) was quite prominent, and I ponied up my $450 for their program.

During my first BRI lectures, I noticed students entering the wonderful College of St. Thomas lecture hall just after the lights went down and the lecture started. Somebody explained that they had failed the November Bar and were engaged in a futile and embarrassing effort to conceal that fact. My view was that there is no shame in failing (at least the first time), and it was best to belly up to the group, confess your sins, and enjoy the company of your friends during the lectures.

During this generally unremarkable course of study, I unexpectedly gained full comprehension of the law of Commercial Paper–a frustrating class for me in law school. This was the law of negotiable instruments such as checks, and was as worthless and obscure an area of law for 99% of lawyers as I could imagine. I heard that it is no longer a bar exam subject.

The other thing I recall was that the Evidence lecturer, a rock-climbing, caffeine free, law professor from Utah explaining the ‘Best Evidence’ rule. He explained that it meant “One must present the original document in court…” Then he leapt on a table jumping and shouting “UNLESS!, UNLESS!, UNLESS!.” And quietly concluded: “…you can’t find the original document.”

On the morning of February 25, 1987, I entered a cement floored auditorium somewhere in downtown St. Paul, showed my driver’s license, was designated Examinee 00122, and was given an assigned seat at one of the long tables that seated the perhaps 300 of us who were taking what was known as the February Bar.

It was a smaller group than the one given in the Fall (I will call that the November Bar, but I can’t remember the exact month) which most law students took immediately upon graduation. I gave myself a few months off, since I knew I wasn’t going to practice law. Another feature of the February Bar was that it contained those classmates of mine who had failed the November Bar.

The exam was carefully proctored, that is closely monitored to prevent cheating. The rules were explained to us: If you needed more blue books or writing instrument, raise your hand and a proctor will attend to you. If you want to go to the bathroom, raise your hand and a proctor would note your request. Once your turn came up, they would scan the bathroom for stray copies of Blackstone’s Commentaries or the like, and once inspected, give the all clear. For obvious reasons, they didn’t want two people in the bathroom at the same time, sharing their knowledge, or passing each other notes hidden in the stalls.

The proctors put the tests before us, instructing us not to break the seal and read them until they gave the signal. With a “You may open your examinations…” it began. Now I had plenty of 4 hour exams in Law School, so 8 hours didn’t seem inconceivable to complete, but it did make me nervous.

The only thing I remember of interest during the exam itself was that during the Con Law (constitutional) essay question, we were given perhaps an hour. I got about 45 minutes into it and decided my analysis was wrong, and that I had a better one. I began crossing out pages in my blue books, and the woman seated across from me noted this with a surprised glance before she resumed her frantic scribbling. I completed my revised analysis in the remaining 15 minutes.

For lunch, a couple of my classmates, who had failed the November Bar, and I dined at a nearby McDonalds. Against the most strongly expressed wisdom of our bar review instructors, we discussed our analyses of the essay questions and multi state questions. The three of us had three entirely different approaches to the con law question.

Those of us who had passed the February Bar were invited to a swearing in ceremony a few weeks later in that same auditorium. Entering the auditorium for the second time, I was pleased to see my two friends who had failed the November Bar and had entirely different analyses of the con law question my own. I remarked “Certainly a lot more pleasant circumstances than the last time we were here.” I also saw the woman who sat across from me while I re-did my own con law essay.

Leave a Reply