This morning, the results of the July 2012 New York State bar examination were released. I am pleased for all of the applicants that scores were released early this year. In years passed, scores typicaly came down much closer to Thanksgiving, which had the effect of turning one’s holiday season in to one of boastfulness or one of depression.
I am fortunate to have passed the bar on the first go. Looking back, I never should have doubted myself. I worked hard in law school. I was on the Dean’s List and a published member of a law journal. I went out to the bars with classmates on Thursday nights (often ones that were tended by our alma mater’s recent graduates); but typically spent my weekends hiding out in the magnificent reading room at the Boston Public Library, pouring over cases and outlines. I spent the summer that I studied for the bar exam entirely dedicated to that single cause. Only once did I take a 24 hour break, for my birthday which fell four weeks before the exam. Some might have called my approach “obsessive”. Yet still, I honestly walked out of the exam with no real sense of whether or not I had passed. I remember clearly saying, “well, it could have gone either way.”
I remember sitting at my desk at work in November 2005, when I logged on to the website where results were stored. I called my mother at work to hear her scream gleefully and with pride in to the phone. I called other family members and friends, too. The one call that I remember most clearly is the one that I made to my uncle – himself a lawyer who sat for more than one bar exam in the 1980’s – who insisted that I give him my social security number so that he could log in to the site and see my results for himself. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that.
With seven years of perspective since receiving my results, here is what I really think about the bar exam:
1. Just because you passed the bar doesn’t mean that you actually get to be a lawyer. I know that it is grim, and I hate to harp on it, but opportunities for newly minted attorneys – and even for mid-level and seasoned attorneys – are quite sparse. Merely having the qualifications to be an attorney no longer guarantees a successful career, or any career at all, as an attorney.
2. Passing the bar exam does not mean that you will be a good lawyer. The bar exam is a standardized exam, and like most standardized exams, the only thing that it effectively tests is your ability to take the test. At its best, the bar exam is an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the law as expressed by your ability to write an essay applying it to a set of facts and analyzing those facts accordingly, reaching the correct conclusion. While these are skills that are useful to a lawyer, you need quite a few more in order to be a good lawyer. For instance, you need to be a rather keen listener.
3. The bar exam does not test your practical lawyering skills. To continue with the point that I made above, listening skills are imperative as an attorney, and client representation is very subjective. Your clients will tell a story, and you need to discern the relevant facts, and the legal issues that arise from those facts; then tackle those issues. As a practicing attorney, you aren’t necessarily looking for the “right” answer; you’re often looking for the loophole. A client will come to you and say, “I’m going to do X.” Then it is your job to find ways around the law to limit their exposure. You are rarely going to be confronted with a client who will come to you and say, “I’d like to do X. May I?” That is the sort of question that the bar exam asks, not the sort of question that a client asks. The bar exam asks “if”; the client asks “how.”
Irrespective of whether the bar exam is an effective means of determining your aptitude or future success as an attorney, passing it is a great achievement – one which likely took months and years of study and preparation. So congratulations to all those who passed the July 2012 exam!
I wish you the best of luck!