Junior Ganymede
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Bar exam

July 27th, 2009 by GST

Its tomorrow.  You are doomed.

It's tomorrow. You are doomed.

There is no upside to the bar exam–if you pass, well, that’s what everyone expected you to do.  And you just borrowed $120,000 (not dischargeable in bankruptcy) to pay for a degree that will be useless without passing the bar.  So failure isn’t really an option.

Can I share a few bar exam stories?

If you are taking the exam tomorrow, stop reading here.  Seriously.

The first is from my first year of law school, three years before the exam.  My criminal law professor was chatting with a few students after class.  I overheard.  They got on to the subject of the bar and what happens to recent law graduates who fail.  The professor said, “Well, your firm is going to tell you, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world, it happens all the time to very bright people, you will pass it next time and go on to a great career’ et cetera.  And to a certain extent they are right–you’ll study again and pass it on your second try.  Within a couple of years, however, you will change firms because you don’t want to practice with a firm full of lawyers that know that you failed the first time, and they’re uncomfortable keeping you around.  Your career may not end right away.  But know this: Though it may not be over right away, or in a year, or two, or even five, your law career will inevitably fail, and when it finally does, you will look back and realize that you received the mortal wound the day you failed the bar exam.”  He was a really fun guy that way.

Three years later, I took the exam in a giant convention center with about 1,000 other nervous nellies.  I had taken the prep course, had the practice exams graded, and otherwise studied diligently for a few months.  In the lunch break of day two of the three day exam, I ran in to another guy who would be starting with me at my new firm in a few weeks.  He had the same doomed expression on his face as the rest of us.  But he said something that inadvertently gave me just the morale boost I needed to get over the next day and a half: “I’m starting to think that I should have begun studying long before two weeks ago.”  Nevertheless, he passed.  I passed too, but I wasted a whole summer doing it.

On another break, I met a friend from law school.  As we were walking back from lunch to main hall of the convention center, we noticed a bunch of happy, smiling, relaxed, tanned, healthy people heading upstairs to some of the smaller meeting rooms.  We decided to follow them to see what made those bastards so happy.  Turns out the other side of the convention center was rented to the yearly meeting of the Perennial Plant Association.  We poked our head in to the vendor area and watched them mill about.  We fantasized momentarily about registering for the conference on the spot, skipping the rest of the exam, and becoming horticulturalists.  We lacked the guts.  Still do.

Share your bar exam stories below.

Comments (39)
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July 27th, 2009 17:17:59

Kevin Barney
July 27, 2009

I took the BAR BRI course over the summer to prepare for the exam. I worked at my new firm in the mornings and took the class in the afternoon.

The two-day test was administered at Northwestern Law School in late July, as I recall. I stayed at a downtown hotel the two nights before each exam day to avoid travel related snafus and stress.

At the same time and place I took the bar, Lloyd Oaks (son of Dallin) also took it.

I passed the bar on my first attempt, thank goodness. But the Illinois bar doesn’t have the same reputation for toughness as the California bar.

Mark B.
July 27, 2009

Took the New York Bar in Albany in summer 1980.

Took the BAR/BRI course at the University of Chicago, in a conference room with 8 other people, audio tapes only. Two or three hours each morning followed by an afternoon of playing with my children (3 and 1 that summer), and then a few hours study in the evening.

Sat next to a woman who ended up marrying a fellow associate at my first firm–noticed her crossing out huge number of pages in her essay, starting over.

She passed. So did I.

There’s not a decent restaurant in Albany.

July 27, 2009

I took two of them, one in Washington where I thought I would be practicing, and one in Utah where I actually ended up practicing. I passed both but I wish I had the years off my life back that the stress and studying took.

I had a friend who took the Washington exam a year before me. I saw him after I knew he must have had his results and I made the mistake of shouting to him across a crowded room to ask whether he passed. He didn’t. I’m sure to this day he would like to kill me for that.

July 27, 2009

We fantasized momentarily about registering for the conference on the spot, skipping the rest of the exam, and becoming horticulturalists.

If it’s any consolation, you’d have ended up dealing with B.S. either way.

Aaron Brown
July 27, 2009

I took the California Bar exam back in 2000. The morning of the exam I was incredibly nervous, worrying that I’d run out of gas on the way to the exam, get into a car accident, or otherwise do something stupid that would derail my taking it. As I’m thinking terrible thoughts, I pull the toothpaste tube out of the medicine cabinet, squeeze some paste onto my toothbrush, and begin brushing. As I continue to anticipate the worst, imagining all sorts of exotic impediments that fate might throw my way, I am interrupted by a seemingly unrelated thought: This toothpaste tastes funny. In fact, it doesn’t really have any flavor at all. I look down at the tube. I turn it over. There in bold letters, I read:


Yep, I had brushed my teeth with Athlete’s Foot medication. My worst fears had come true, albeit not in the manner I had imagined. Fortunately, I hadn’t been a “swallower” since childhood, so I spit out the contents of my mouth, without really ingesting any of it. And I made to the Bar exam on time, without automotive incident.

Alas, I failed the exam. That really sucked. Trust me — going into work the morning after you find out is one of the worst moments of your life — perhaps THE worst. And 5 years later, after 3 different law firm jobs, I did leave the practice for good.


Mark B.
July 27, 2009

One other thing: I have a daughter who is a horticulturalist. I don’t think most law school graduates are smart enough to be horticulturalists–whether they pass the bar exam or not.

July 27, 2009

I pretty much treated my bar exam prep as a full time job the entire summer. I’m glad I did, too. I’m sure there were some who “crammed,” but I just couldn’t do it that way.

In my memory, the most remarkable part of the bar exam wasn’t really the exam itself (although it’s something I will never forget). For me, the most memorable thing had to do with finding out my results. As it turned out, the day the exam results were posted was September 11, 2001. A friend who worked in the state office where the results were first published had promised to call me that morning and give me the heads-up before the results were posted on-line. That morning, of course, the news was dominated by the terrorist attacks. I remember getting the call, and hearing that I’d passed, while standing there watching the images of the towers falling down, over and over again.

Needless to say, despite the good news, it was one hell of a bummer of a day.

john f.
July 28, 2009

I’ve taken two. The first was the Utah bar exam coming straight out of law school. I found it curious that the Bar Exam prep course (rather than law school) actually presented the law that would be relevant to an actual law job. I found the section reviewing constitutional law, together with Chemerinsky’s prep course lecture, very enjoyable as a quick summary bringing numerous academic threads of study from law school together into something relatively cohesive. I took the exam with the standard dread and bad attitude of a typical law school grad but was relieved to pass. After I took the actual Bar Exam, I had the anti-climactic experience of having to take the MPRE in August because I had not done so previously. Because many of the other people I knew had already taken and passed it, for some reason, the MPRE gave me more of an ulcer that summer — the fear of not passing it. I found out I passed the MPRE on a fall afternoon as my family and I were heading up to Snowbird for the Octoberfest celebration. That was a great, warm sunny Saturday afternoon with the chill of the high mountain air and the colors of fall to accompany us.

My second bar exam was the New York bar exam. This was a literally harrowing experience. My firm only gave me ten days to study for it since I was a lateral hire. I got the prep course in the mail about six weeks before the exam but wasn’t able to listen to the self-study cds or really even look at the materials until 9 days before the test because this was still during the boom time of the economy and I was working around the clock at the firm and had no spare time. I had decided to travel to the states to study for it so my family could be hanging out with grandparents/cousins and I could just focus on the test. My ten days got whittled down to 9 days because storms in Minneapolis made us miss our connecting flight to SLC and we had to get a flight the next day. Long story short, I crammed like never before in my life (thank goodness for the environment at BYU Law School — and I was able to sit in my old carrell, which brought psychological comfort). Despite nine days of around the clock cramming, I still hadn’t even been able to look at a number of whole areas of law. But I figured 2.5 years of solid commercial litigation experience should account for something — and they did. Despite all the stress of the actual studying, I felt completely at ease while actually taking the exam. That is where the experience of having taken one before kicked in — I felt completely at my leisure while looking around at the other poor victims fresh out of law school taking it for the first time, having visible signs of anxiety and stress.

Two anecdotes also helped. First, on the first day of the New York bar exam, as I took my seat, I saw an extremely disheveled and nervous-looking guy take his seat near me and then proceed to sharpen the wrong end of his pencil. Second, at Heathrow airport in London while waiting at the baggage return after my return flight (immediately after the conclusion of the last day of the bar exam I had to rush from Saratoga Springs, where I had been assigned to take the exam, to JFK airport for a flight back to London that same evening), a woman struck up conversation with me, saying that she was a wreck because she was just returning from taking the New York bar exam. When I told her that I had as well, she proceeded to say “can you believe all the material about American Indian law? I didn’t know that would be relevant”. Then she said “And I just hate all those questions about Constitutional Law — I didn’t even study for those.”

July 28, 2009

During one of our breaks for the South Carolina bar, I remember standing in a hall and overhearing a guy screaming into his cell phone at, presumably, his wife about her infidelities and pleading with her to cool it while he finished up the bar exam. Don’t know what his results were.

For some interesting reading, google how the results of the South Carolina bar exam results were changed a couple of years ago at the behest of some kids of some powerful SC officials who would have failed otherwise.

As I prepared to take the GA bar-after passing the SC bar-I gambled there would not be any federal tax questions and only barely skimmed at best that material. Fortunately my gamble paid off: no federal tax questions-at least as best I could figure-and I passed.

More states these days allow lawyers to waive into other states without taking a bar exam. For example, with my GA bar membership I can waive into PA. I only have to pay the $1000.00 fee.

July 28, 2009

Sorry, no bar exam stories, but the first time I heard the term was as a kid in movie Money Pit:

Walter: It’s a big house, we’ll divide it up! You stay in your half, I’ll stay in mine!
Anna: That is such a dumb idea. Sometimes it amazes me you ever passed the bar.
Walter: I’m sure it does, you’ve never passed a bar in you life.
Anna: You are so much less attractive when I’m sober.
Walter: Thank goodness it’s not that often.

Much funnier now that I know what it means to pass the bar.

July 28, 2009

On my last break on the third and last day of the Texas bar, I struck up some idle conversation with the girl I’d been sitting next to for the last three days. Previous to this, she and I had only discussed polite topics like the weather and where she went to school. But on that last break of the last day, she chose to tell me that this was her second time taking the bar, and that last time, she’d failed by 2 points (out of a possible 1000). 2 points! Obviously there has to be a cutoff, but it completely freaked me out that you could miss one more question than the guy next to you and not pass. I spent the next two months just running numbers in my head about how many I could have missed on the essay and still passed, and how many I could have missed on the MBE and still passed, absolutely terrified that I’d missed by two points. I still curse myself for ever striking up a conversation with her.

I also remember distinctly the very last question on the MBE that last day. It was a fact scenario where a guy had died falling into a vat of cow feces. I think the issue was whether it was a warranty issue because the vat was a “good,” or whether it was just a contort issue for faulty installation. I don’t remember my answer, but I do remember thinking to myself, “How very poetically appropriate that the last question on my bar exam ends with a guy dying in a giant pile of BS.”

john willis
July 28, 2009

This didn’t happen to me ( I have had to pass bar exams in three states, never again) but it is still a good story.

Our former Vice-President Dan Quayle and his wife met in Law School at Indiana -Purdue University in Indianapolis. They met in in a very romantic environment, tax class. In any case they married during their second year of law school. A professor of there’s who was a part-time judge married them.

Marilyn became pregnat shortly after they married. It turned out her due date and the date of the Indiana Bar Exam were the same. The date of the bar exam draws closer—no baby. Ten days before the bar exam she takes pertousin and induces labor and delivers their first son.

She takes an inflatable rubber pillow to sit on and takes the two day Indiana Bar (at that time Indiana didn’t use the multi state). She passed .

Now passing the Indiana Bar isn’t that hard, after all both myself and Dan Quayle passed the first time. But that does say a lot for her. I always beleived she was the legal brains of that family

July 28, 2009

I did double duty and took the Mass and New Hampshire bar at the same time in 2007. Fortunately I passed both but I don’t know if that is thanks to or inspite of BarBri. I have to admit PMBR really helped, though they had probably copied 100 questions out of the previous MBE that I recognized. But then again, this was right after their lawsuit. I don’t recommend taking two bars at once, NH was all general common law as it used the MBE and MEE standardized essays, and the Mass essays were state specific. Too much to remember in distinguishing which state did what. I do remember the feeling of elation after walking through Boston after completing the last day of testing, and knowing that I had to drive from Concord, NH to Phoenix on Sunday and start work the following week.

I had a law school buddy who failed the DC bar by 2-4 points. After a few weeks he passed. I found out that in the DC bar, if you are within a certain number of points, they do a second review of essays. Based on their second look, he passed. I was happy for him.

GST, your ancedote about your colleague studying for two weeks reminds me of what Whitemore said during his BarBri lecture of crim law. I think he said he was taking the bar in DC in July with no A/C, and it was a smoking room, and the guy in front turned around to him and said, “Can you believe that people study for this thing”? Classic.

July 28, 2009

Yes, the Whitebread story is great. Other details–he had to walk up 4 flights of stairs, and he had to type although he’d registered to hand write (or vice versa).

Charles Whitebread 1943-2008 RIP

john f.
July 28, 2009

Sad to hear of Whitebread passing away. I enjoyed his BAR/BRI lectures.

July 28, 2009

A woman I practiced with who was a year senior to me failed when she took the exam. Some months later the bar contacted her as she was in the midst of preparing to retake the exam to let her know she had, in fact, passed. Apparently a very confident associate at another firm kept insisting there was absolutely no way he could have failed the exam and eventually convinced a partner to take it up the chain of command with the powers that be. An investigation revealed that some small number of exams were incorrectly scored.

July 28, 2009

I didn’t know about Whitebread passing away. That’s sad to hear. I liked his gravelly voice and his lectures were more interesting than Chemerinsky’s dry Con Law lectures with terrible jokes and puns.

Ardis Parshall
July 28, 2009

Charles Whitebread of USC?? Yeah, I’ll bet he was interesting to listen to. He’s the one whose meticulous research at the “Mormon National Tabernacle in Washington” uncovered the truth about Mormons and marijuana. His unparalleled account of Mormon history begins:

In 1910, the Mormon Church in synod in Salt Lake City decreed polygamy to be a religious mistake and it was banned as a matter of the Mormon religion. Once that happened, there was a crackdown on people who wanted to live in what they called “the traditional way”. So, just after 1910, a fairly large number of Mormons left the state of Utah, and indeed left the United States altogether and moved into northwest Mexico.

and gets wilder from there.

This is the man who prepared y’all for practicing law??

Karen H.
July 28, 2009

I took the Virginia exam in 2001. Everyone had to be dressed in a suit, which was actually progressive, because just a couple years earlier, women had to wear skirts to sit for the bar. Ugggh.

The kid who was sitting next to me was bragging a lot before the test began about how smart he was, how well-prepared he was, etc. etc. He left the first day after our lunch break and never came back. Later, the proctors came up to me during the test and wanted to talk to me about him, and I was thinking, “umm, taking the bar exam here, can this wait?” I’ve always felt sorry for him, though. Nameless guy from Tulane who freaked out and left at lunch…

July 28, 2009

Ardis, he didn’t prepare us to practice law–just to pass the bar exam. We were all still unprepared to practice law.

S.P. Bailey
July 28, 2009

I’ve taken and passed two bar examinations. The first was stressful. It was hot and cramped in the dumpy bar association building. I barely finished the multiple-choice marathon. And I wrote frantically until time was called on the essays.

The second: not stressful at all. I finished most sections with 5-10 minutes to spare and then entertained myself watching recent law grads freak out. Good times.

It’s true: getting the word you passed on the first try is a relief, but it impresses nobody but the poor folks taking the test for the second or third time.

S.P. Bailey
July 28, 2009

And Whitebread supplied my favorite anecdote from those miserable BarBri video lectures. His mom sent him a news clipping on the death of Ernesto Miranda. She supplied the following caption (paraphrased): “Isn’t it a shame after all he did to fight for our rights?”

July 28, 2009

I took the bar in 2001 at the Javits Center in New York City. Something like 2500 others were taking it with me. There were only a few narrow escalators leading into the hall and they weren’t opened until 10 minutes before the exam. As a result, nearly half of the people hadn’t even found their (assigned) seats when the proctor began reading the directions (in a monotone, nearly inaudible, voice).

Other than that, the scariest moment was doing the New York-specific multiple-choice questions. I pretty much made a pretty pattern filling in the bubbles — but I realized I had sat through BarBri and hadn’t learned this stuff, so I was pretty sure no one else had either.

9-11 delayed the results coming out, so we didn’t hear until the Friday after Thanksgiving, which pretty much ruined the holiday for all new associates throughout the city. If I remember right, they posted the results on the NY Bar website just after midnight. At that time, the site was public, so if your name was on the list you passed and if it was missing you had failed. And all of your peers knew it. To add to the stress, my son was ill and had to stay overnight at the hospital and I stayed with him so that my wife could stay with the other kids at our apartment. It was her duty to check the web announcement and give me a call at the hospital. She forgot, so I stayed at the hospital all night — wide awake and nauseous with anticipation. Fortunately, my stress was alleviated early Friday morning when a good friend from my firm (and from law school) called to offer his congratulations on both of us passing.

Over the next few days, when I would share this story with lawyers they would say things like “I can’t believe your wife forgot. You must have been so freaked out.” When I would tell non-lawyers, they would say, “What is wrong with you, her son was in the hospital.”

Jay S
July 28, 2009

How appropriate – as I just finished sitting for my third bar. The first was both hard and easy. Hard as It was stressful and a lot of work. Easy as all I had to do for 6 weeks was study for the bar.

The second was horrible.

Today was an interesting revelation. It seems to mirror the state quite well. Huge, with a lot of people, completely disorganized, late, with a contrast between luxury (the hall) and poor (tables and chairs).

My all time favorite story is about the guy who forgot the bar exam and first showed up on the second day.

July 29, 2009

I took the California Bar in 1975. One of the guys using a typewriter brought 3 spares in case one broke. Another who was typing the exam had his typewriter break he got up and went around screaming that his typewriter had broken and would someone loan him a pen. Someone pointed to the 5 pens he had sticking out of his pocket. Another person I took the bar with was taking it for the 46 th time, 23 years of futility, his son passed before he did, he worked in a firm as a reasearch assistant where his son was an associate.
My daughter took the California Bar in 2004 when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant. We both passed on the first try.

July 29, 2009

Oh gosh… I did this a year ago. I don’t ever want to have to do it again!

July 29, 2009

Not to be confused with crossing the bar, I’m sure.

Am I the only non-lawyer here?

Ben Pratt
July 29, 2009

Vader, the only laws I worry about professionally are named after fellows like Newton, Ohm, Ampere, Maxwell, Biot, Savart, and so on.

My qualifying exams were pretty tough, but we physicists don’t really have a national qualifying exam day. Too bad.

July 30, 2009


It sounds like you and I at least have had the experience of candidacy exams. I didn’t worry about mine too much, since I’ve always tested well, but I did take the precaution of studying like the devil the two weeks before.

I think I had more trepidations about my final oral exam. I take it yours is still ahead of you? Bwah hah hah …

I actually think it’s kind of funny that passing the bar apparently doesn’t require a final oral exam, and qualifying for a Ph.D. in physics does. Who has more at stake on their ability to think on their feet?

July 30, 2009

I took the NY bar at the Javits Center in 2007. I shared a table both days with a guy who was farting non-stop. And not just little farts. We’re talking dirty diaper, gag-inducing, air-thickening farts. For two days straight. The second day during the lunch break he sheepishly leaned over and apologized, saying that his digestive issues were due to nervousness. I didn’t really know how to respond. I did feel bad for him, though, because he seemed rather mortified. I passed the exam; sure hope Stinky did, too.

I have to take the IL bar next year…ugh. Haven’t been practicing long enough in NY to waive in.

Ben Pratt
July 30, 2009

I have TWO oral exams ahead of me: the General Exam which establishes true candidacy, and the Final Exam. Thanks for reminding me.

maria, that’s amazing.

July 30, 2009

Your department requires two oral exams? Talk about a Birkenhead Drill …

Kevin Barney
July 30, 2009

Hey Maria, welcome to Illinois! (I practice in Chicago.)

July 31, 2009

I just took the CA bar over the last three days. There were a bunch of applicants at the convention center, all from a certain fourth tier law school, wearing green shirts that said: “Do it once, do it right, and never do it again!” As we were walking back from lunch on day two, we started talking to a guy from that law school. One of my friends said to him: “I’m glad that you’re not wearing one of those stupid shirts.” To which he replied: “That’s because this is my third time.”

July 31, 2009

Don’t forget the moral character test.

New York requires a short interview. I showed up at mine, wondering if I would be asked difficult philosophical questions. (Is it okay to deliberately kill one innocent person, if that saves five others? But what if they’re Red Sox fans?)

The fellow looked over my application, and grunted. “So, you went to Columbia. Did you like it?”

Um, yes.

“Did you have Farnsworth?”

No, sorry. [actually, I don’t recall exactly which professor he asked if I had had, but it was one I hadn’t.]

“So, have you thought about doing pro bono work?”

Yes, I’m hoping to do some during my legal career.

“Excellent. Here’s a brochure about pro bono. Pro bono is important.”

I agree.

“Okay, you’re done. Next.”

And that was it.

I wonder if anyone actually fails that interview. It seems to establish a very low bar: Candidates who cannot hold it together for a two minute exchange of pleasantries are not worthy to be lawyers. (Though I’ve known some opposing counsel who I’m surprised passed even that hurdle.)

I wonder what would have happened if I had said, “I like to put puppies in the blender.” I didn’t wonder enough to actually say it, though.

July 31, 2009

An official explanation (sort of) of the interview process: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/courts/ad1/Committees&Programs/CFC/index.shtml

Adam G.
July 31, 2009

Curiousity killed the puppy. That’s hysterical, KW.

All legal ethical requirements fit into one of three categories: (1) blindingly obvious, (2) toothless, (3) unethical. Some overlap.

August 3, 2009

We have a new ethics training requirement at Death Star Inc. It’s a 75-minute training video on sexual harrassment.

Everyone I know here — including some of the finest, most ethical, most moral designers of weapons of mass destruction it’s been my pleasure to know — has failed the accompanying electronic exam the first attempt.

I figure it takes about five minutes to tell you to not feel up the secretaries. (Pardon the bluntness.) I confess to being mildly curious what the other 70 minutes are about. But only mildly curious, in the “will I actually feel the axe sever my neck” sense.

[…] to everyone still taking it.  And for those of you who already took it and feel terrible, these bar exam horror stories might cheer you up.  Or make you cry. from → Bloggernacle, Blogging, Law, Law School […]

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