Over the Top.
March 4, 2010, 2:58 pm
Filed under: bar | Tags: , , ,

EDITOR’S NOTE:  I expected, a month ago, to post more frequently.  This did not happen.  Instead, I studied for the California State Bar Exam and neglected this blog.  I apologize to my devoted readership (all three of you).  I also apologize for the length of this post.  I will attempt brevity next time.

You must expect, if you intend to enter the membership of a malevolent secret society that exerts clandestine power over all aspects of life, that you will be forced to undergo a self-negating, but ultimately meaningless, initiation rite.  Law is such a society.  A state bar has a lawfully sanctioned monopoly over the practice of law in that particular state.  Why is this monopoly legal when all others that do not involve baseball or health insurance are not?  Because lawyers control everything, and have exempted themselves from laws.  To enter the druidic folds of this shadowy fraternity, an aspiring lawyer must undergo whatever torment the state bar has determined appropriate.  Thus, the bar exam.

I am an attorney in Illinois, but that does me no good in California.  While most states allow attorneys from other jurisdictions to waive in or take an abbreviated bar exam, the California bar is more aggressively monopolistic than other states.  I must take all three days of the bar exam, like a common law student, including the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE), a multiple choice test that I already passed once before when I became a lawyer in Illinois, which, although it is corrupt and terrible, is still a state in the Union and, in theory, deserves some kind of credit for having standards.  But, apparently not.  In addition to taking the full-bore bar exam, I have to pay more than I would as a fresh-out-of-school pup.  Almost twice as much.  Those incredibly smart lawyers in California can’t handle the competition apparently.

I took the bar in San Mateo, a suburb South of the city.  The night before, I sat in my hotel room, two blocks from the cavernous convention center where I would take the exam.  I attempted to review, but it was useless.  I watched The Devil Wears Prada on basic cable.  The Devil Wears Prada is a particularly irritating movie.  In some respects it follows the conventions of the horror movie.  Every character that is nominally villainous is interesting and funny and portrayed by a good actor, and everyone who is ostensibly good is unlikeable, annoying, and portrayed by a bad actor.  This puts you in the awkward position of rooting for the villain, Meryl Streep taking on the Freddie Kruger role in this case, and hoping that Anne Hathaway fails and dies a horrible gory death, which, in a non-horror context, is kinda strange.

The next morning I rose early, probably too early.  This is a thing I do when I have an important engagement.  I alott too much time for tasks.  This leaves me awkwardly waiting around for an hour before the anticipated event.  In addition, when I am nervous I compulsively yawn.  I remember going on job interviews in Chicago, in the winter, wearing only my worn old blue Brooks Brothers suit.  A shivering figure repeatedly circling an office building, clutching a black leather portfolio with a cover letter and resume inside, yawning inexplicably every five seconds, and ducking into Starbucks to pee every 10 minutes because of the cold.  This is what I do.

When the doors opened, I was in line.  The kid in front of me had glassy, drooped eyes.  Slouching in front of me, I realized he reeked of weed.  I yawn; this guy gets weird.  Whatever you got to do.  Did I mention that the February bar has a lower pass rate than the summer bar?  Part of this has to do with the number of re-takers who failed the first time around.

I sat down in my seat.  I continued to yawn.  The person assigned to the seat next to me never showed up.  After our lunch break they took that persons’s identification material away.  I imagined what terrible events kept that person from taking this, the most important exam of their lives.  Sea monsters?  Ninja assassins?  Alien abduction?  The possibilities were too terrible to contemplate.

The bar exam is proctored by elderly to middle aged women, who selflessly stand around for three days watching people freak out.  It must be very thankless.  The proctor at the front of the room began to read the instructions.

“…all cell phones must be placed in the designated box at the front of the room…”

Indeed, at the front, on a table was a cardboard box.  On it was taped a yellow piece of legal pad paper.  On the yellow paper was written diagonally the word “DESIGNATED” in black sharpie.

The first day is devoted to California-specific essays and a performance test.  The performance test is the most inane part of the bar exam.  It is like hazing.  One of those irrational punitive things older members of a club do to incoming members, for no other reason than the older members had to do it when they first enlisted.  You have three hours to read a set of fake cases and fake factual documents and write a memo or some other kind of legal instrument using the information.  You need no knowledge or skill to pass.  All you have to do is know how to read and follow directions.  A third grader could take a performance test.  But of course a third grader can’t actually take the California bar exam, even if they’ve been admitted to another jurisdiction, because the California lawyers are afraid of the competition.

On the second day, we had to wait to begin the multiple choice MBE.  Sitting there heightened the drama, as the proctors wheeled the tests in on a giant rolling slab.  The tests were in high stacks, guarded by a phallanx of proctors.  It was like the Ark of the Covenant or something.  All that was missing was an ominous John Williams score and face-melting.

The third day is the same as the first day: essays and performance tests.  By this time, I was basically exhausted.  I had been sick throughout the week.  I was hopped up on a cocktail of tylenol cold and ricola.  I thought of the stoner in line in front of me on the first day.  I hand-wrote the exam (many test takers use a laptop) and my right hand was twisted into an arthritic claw, throbbing with pain.  I could barely handle the basic object I would need for the exam, a sword a pen.  As a result, I knew that this third day would be an endurance contest.


Many people ask you how you “feel” when you finish an exam like this.  It is hard to respond to that kind of query.  You don’t want to jinx yourself with overconfidence.  You also don’t want to express weakness, because then people will feel sorry for you.  So how did I feel?  Well, I don’t know if I passed.  I really can’t tell you.   Anyway, there is nothing I can do about it now.  It is all over.  That is what matters to me.  I knew many things and did not know some things.  We will see, on May 14th, whether I knew enough.


5 Comments so far
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Good luck

Comment by Ian

Matt and I are impressed by your extended video metaphor. The textual portions of your blog also amuse us. As someone who has only taken three total days of bar exam, I would compare my own experience to the final duel between Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki on Ganryu Island! ( One for the ages.

Comment by kt

I want you to know that they are showing several Zatoichi movies for free on hulu right now, courtesy of the criterion collection.

Comment by erik

Maybe the yawning is good because it relaxes you. Like Apollo Ono.

I am afraid to leave Florida because, like you, I will have to take the entire exam again including the MBE. So I’m staying put. For now.

Comment by Michelle

In michigan, you could just waive in after 3 years. Only two more to go!

Comment by erik

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