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.

Gettin’ Busy at the Shalom Home

I visited Professor Lyons from time to time in his office. I think he really enjoyed hanging around law school with his door open and having students visit.

On one occasion, he got onto the subject of a friend or family member living at the Sholom Home, a nursing home by the state fairgrounds. This person would tell him about things they heard about or saw there. At one point he said “You wouldn’t believe the things that go on over there.” He then looked over his reading glasses at me, raised his eyebrows and gave me a meaningful glance. Apparently such activities were entirely of an illicit nature. I was much humored.

The notorious case of the lip biting marine

At a law alumni activity, I once had the pleasure of talking to an attorney who worked in the Navy JAG core. JAG is Judge Advocates General, and is the judicial branch of the navy. It has been sensationalized in popular culture with the phrase “You can’t handle the truth!” and an eponymus tv drama.

This officer, who we will call Lieutenant Commander (LTC) Doe, recounted to me the story of perhaps her most famous client, a marine who had been dubbed the “Lip Biter”.

The facts of the case were not in dispute. One evening some marines were in a bar drinking, dancing with their girlfriends or wives, and socializing. At some point, one of them got liquored up and imprudently made remarks which assailed the virtue of another marine’s date. Defending her honor, the aggreived marine returned fire, and in the course of the fistfight, threw the indiscreet marine down on a pool table, bent down, bit off his lip, spit it out on the floor, and stomped on it.

LTC Doe was assigned the role of criminal defense attorney for the lip biter (as he was universally referred to on base). After reading the arrest report, she was a bit nervous about meeting him. She took every precaution available, arranging to have the defendant chained hand and foot and to the table, with two marines to guard him. During the discussion, she was surprised to find the lip biter soft spoken and unfailingly polite.  He remained so throughout pendancy of the case, and attended subsequent meetings unchained.

This case quickly became the talk of the base. One day an admiral entered her office. She shot up and snapped off her best salute. She had never had someone of that high rank in her office before. Nervously inquiring how she could help him, he asked “So, you have the lip biter case?” This increased her trepidation, wondering what she had done wrong to warrant this visit. She responded “Yes, Sir!” He then inquired “Can I see the pictures?” Greatly relieved, she accomodated his request.

In the fullness of time, the case was resolved in a courts martial. The lip biter was facing perhaps 10 to 20 years in military prison, but was sentenced to something like 18 months. There was some sense that his actions, while violative of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, were not quite as violative of the unspoken Marine Code of Chivalry.

The case of the well armed FBI agent

One option for a graduating law student was to join the FBI. It was a surprisingly competitive opportunity. In fact, word was that in those halcyon days in the early 1980s, the FBI was only hiring law graduates who were women, minorities, or those with single digit class ranks from ivy league schools–as a means of curing certain demographic imbalances in their ranks. But in any case, those of us who were interested were able to see a presentation from an FBI agent in the usual 90 seat amphitheater room.

So, things were going pretty well until he showed a video made by agent candidates who were attending FBI basic training, or whatever it was called. One of the candidates exclaimed that the school was academically difficult and that the candidates studied as much as three hours a night! There was some twittering from those of us in the audience. During my first year, I studied from 6 to midnight 5 days a week, and I was by no means the most diligent student. The agent noted the giggles and snorts and commented that law students must study more than that.

After the video there were questions and answers. I can’t recall the details, but I vaguely recall a police hater type student grinding his axe with commentary and pointed qeustions. At some point the agent apparently felt he lost the upper hand psychologically, so he pointed to his gun and stated, apropos of nothing, that “If any of you were to make a move on me, I could K-6 you right in the heart.” I presumed that K-6 was a target range metric indicating tightness of pattern.

Well, those of us sitting relaxed in our chairs, having never given the slightest thought to “making a move” on anybody in the amphitheater, gave each other some subtle eyebrow raised looks to the effect of “What kind of a clown are we dealing with here?” Fortunately, the presentation completed without any shots fired, and the agent closed by explaining the demographic targets of their recruiting as I noted above.

Having said all that, the fact remained that the FBI represented a great career opportunity for those with the right disposition and demographics to get hired there.

[I believe the reason they were called ‘special’ agents arose from agency law. A general agent is presumed to have unlimited authority on behalf of the organization they represent, while a special agent designation puts counter parties on notice that the agent does not have unlimited authority and they need to ascertain what authority said agent has. For instance, a special agent has the authority to arrest a suspect, but typically not the authority to enter into a million dollar building purchase agreement on behalf of the FBI.]

The case of the friday night studier

As I mentioned, many of us liked to let go a bit on friday (as well as saturday) nights. When gathering the gang and trying to figure out what to do, we often tried to recruit a certain classmate whom we will call Jack for the purposes of this anecdote. Now Jack was  quite personable and was an enjoyable and humorous guy to party with. Then I started to notice that he frequently didn’t come along with us, but rather took a stack of books to the law library on friday nights. We would try and convince him to go and he would say stuff along the lines of “Listen guys, I’m not as smart as you are. I’m just not getting the material, I gotta work on it more.”

So, this goes on and after grades come out at some point we find he is like third in the class. Well, live and learn…. Jack gave us much to admire and envy.


Night of the living Real Estate Transactions students

While I don’t know what things were like at Ivy League law schools such as Harvard and Stanford, at Hamline, for many–myself not the least among them–the end of the last class on friday triggered an alcohol fueled release of tension and revelry that went on until the wee hours of saturday morning.

This worked well in theory, but it turned out that Hamline scheduled a Real Estate Transactions class from 9 to noon saturday morning. The class was taught by a prominent and seasoned practicing real estate lawyer who didn’t want to take off work while he generously donated his time to the school.

The attorney, who’s name escapes me, was a wonderful character who made the minutiae of complex commercial real estate transactions seem as interesting as anybody could. On one occasion he described the potential for a one-inch boundary dispute between two large and contiguous commercial buildings downtown as something that would make him bolt upright in the middle of the night, covered with sweat. In fact, he described and I saw a brass monument with a boundry line indicator placed in the sidewalk in front of Dayton’s back in the day for the very purpose of preventing such a lawsuit.

But I digress. Due to his past experience with the wayward nature of law students on friday night, the class had a strict two absence/late rule. More than two, and you received a three credit F. A few weeks into class, when all the absences had been used up, I was once again on the left side of the 90 seat amphitheater and gazed upon some hung-over classmates. Pasty faces with a fine patina of sweat, baseball hats with stray hairs pointing out in all directions, unblinking stares, faces radiating pain waves… It occurred to me that one could to to the morgue and secure a group of three day old corpses and populate the room with a more enthusiastic audience.

I admired this professor who diligently shouldered on, discussing the intricacies of eminent domain and sales contracts, in front of a class with many who didn’t want to be there, or were barely capable of being there.