A few weeks ago marked the 10th anniversary of the one and only time I sat for the California Bar Exam. It was on my mind because a friend of mine was going through the process for the first time. I thought about the stress she must be going through. The nervousness of checking into the hotel the night before, hoping that your laptop will work properly throughout the 3-day exam, and trying not to let anybody else’s panic attacks affect your concentration or your “confidence’ (authentic or manufactured).
In the summer of 2004, as I was gearing up my Bar preparation, I wondered why I had chosen this profession. Didn’t I know about the Bar Exam prior to applying for law school? Why did I choose to subject myself to this ultimate test? Of course, during the law school application process, I was aware that after law school I was going to have to endure the “big test.” I remember the pressure Tom Cruise’s character felt while taking the Bar Exam in The Firm and the stories about JFK, Jr.’s multiple struggles with the New York Bar Exam. I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the Exam until the end of my third year of law school.
Three days. Eighteen hours. Fourteen subjects. Common law. Current law in the majority of jurisdictions. Current law in the minority of jurisdictions. California law. Twelve hours of essay questions. Six hours of multiple choice questions. 39% pass rate. Three years of intense law school was largely Bar Exam preparation on its own. However, immediately after law school graduation, a summer of intense Bar Exam preparation begins where your only occupation is to hone yourself into a lean, mean, Bar Exam-taking-machine.
About halfway through the third year of law school, the first “freak-out” begins. Students start discussing the fact that the California Bar Exam is often considered the hardest Bar Exam in the Country. Research is conducted in a desperate attempt to try to determine what state has the “easiest” Bar Exam. People start considering living in states they never imagined before contemplating the big, bad test. A rumor started spreading throughout the halls of UC Davis that if we had simply gone to law school in Wisconsin and decided to practice there, the Wisconsin Bar waives its Bar Exam requirement. We wondered aloud why we didn’t know about this fact when we entered law school. Would we have chosen Wisconsin over UC Davis? I’m a Packers fan – I could be happy living in the Dairy State, eating cheese and rooting for the Pack. Of course, when we started floating the idea of living in these random states with our families and significant others, they thought we had lost our minds!
In the midst of the Bar Exam prep, after law school graduation and prior to taking the exam, the second freak-out begins. Students start discussing the fact that if all else fails, we still have our law degrees. Research begins on what careers are possible for those with law degrees but without an actual license to practice law. A book is passed around entitled, “Top Non-Lawyer Careers for Lawyers.” When we started floating this idea of not actually practicing law to our families and significant others, they again thought we had lost our minds!
I took the Bar Exam at the Sacramento Convention Center at the end of July 2004. One week later, I got married in the chapel of my undergraduate alma mater, Saint Michael’s College, in Vermont. The next week, my wife and I had our honeymoon in Hawaii. A few weeks later, I started working for a law firm in Salinas as a clerk while I awaited the results of the Bar Exam. It is not until the week before Thanksgiving that we find out whether we are lawyers or whether we need to start preparing for the February Bar Exam to give the whole thing a second try – you can’t take it in parts! On a Friday, at 6:00 pm, we are able to login and check our results. The results would become public that Sunday. A friend of mine from the Salinas law firm was also waiting for his results. We went home early that day, set up our computers, and waited.
At 6:00 pm, with my wife and father beside me, I logged on. Of course the site was busy and I had to constantly refresh the page. Finally the results were available. In my panic, I misread the results! I thought it said: “The name above does not appear on the pass list.” I remember saying, “Oh no! Too Bad!” Then my wife read it and said, “No, it says you passed!” It actually read: “The name above appears on the pass list.” Hooray! Just to be sure, I printed the message about a dozen times. My friend and I still needed to be sworn-in.
A close family friend and mentor, Judge Albert Maldonado, swore us in at a special ceremony held at the law firm in Salinas. We then had to mail our oath to the State Bar. I remember we were very nervous about the Post Office failing to deliver our oath. We must have put about three times the necessary postage just to be sure! Necessary or not, it worked and we officially obtained our license to practice law in November 2004.
Ten years later, the Bar Exam is a distant memory. It does seem silly now to think about random states in which to live or alternate career paths simply to avoid the big test. When studying for the Bar, I told myself that if I passed the first time, I would never look down upon anybody who didn’t pass the first time (or the second or third or fourth time, etc.) and I still don’t. It’s as much about test-taking ability and being “on” for those three days as it is about knowing and applying the law.
Although it’s a lot of pressure, it’s also a rite of passage. Now that the Bar Exam is in my rear view window, I am glad that I did not opt for the “Wisconsin plan” of skipping the Bar Exam altogether as I am happy to have had that experience. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now, though I certainly understand the angst that this year’s Bar Exam takers experienced. (I never did find out whether the rumors about being able to skip the Wisconsin Bar were actually true. I guess once I passed the Bar, that stuff didn’t matter anymore!)
November will mark my 10th year of happily practicing law. Last February was the 5th anniversary of my own law firm. Enduring law school and the Bar Exam has certainly paid dividends! I look forward to the next wave of freshly-minted lawyers to have their efforts rewarded as well.
KRASA LAW is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California, and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205.