The Nightmare Bar Exam and the Man Who Passed on the 48th Try

The Grueling California Bar Exam

The three-day California State Bar Exam is a grueling challenge. It is the hardest exam in the country. It causes nightmares, nervous breakdowns, and heart attacks.

In February 2018, the pass rate was only 27%. In other words, 73%, about ¾, failed

These are not average folks. These are men and women who have graduated in the top of their class from college after four years. These are people who also graduated from law school after a minimum of three years.

The pressure is so great that test-takers go to extraordinary lengths to pass. Most students take expensive testing and writing courses. Some test-takers hire private tutors. Some applicants hire personal life coaches to teach them meditation and relaxation techniques. Most test-takers check into hotels next to the testing center. And, some take drugs, legal and illegal.

Here are a few of the multitude of horror stories:

Test-taker Went into Cardiac Arrest

Near the end of one of the exams, a test-taker went into cardiac arrest. His heart stopped. 

Three applicants gave him CPR until the paramedics arrived. These three individuals were heroes. They saved the person’s life. However, all three failed the exam because they didn’t finish.

There was public outrage. It was a public relations disaster for the California State Bar. Eventually, the Bar caved in. They pro-rated the test results, deducting the time spent saving the person’s life. When the results were re-calculated all three heroes passed.

His Attorney Wife Cheated by Taking the Exam for Him

In one case, a man convinced his attorney wife to take the exam for him. She was smarter, and she had passed the first time. When he applied for the test, he faked an ID using a photo of her with glasses and a mustache. (Reminds me of the Groucho Marx comic fake glasses with big nose and bushy eyebrows and mustache.) By the time of the exam the wife was visibly pregnant, and they got caught.

The Typewriter Broke

In another case, the person was typing his answers.  After typing for an hour, it dawned on him that he hadn’t changed his paper. He looked up, and to his horror, there was a single black dot on the page. The carriage was stuck and hadn’t moved. 

The man stood up, slammed his typewriter on the floor, kicked his chair against the wall, and stormed out.  After a while, when he calmed down, he thought to himself, “Why didn’t I just write?”

The Fuses Blew in the Electric Typewriter Room

Some people, like myself, used an electric typewriter for the exam. In one of the testing centers, several outlet fuses in the typing room blew out. The testers started scrambling for outlets. There weren’t enough.

A giant fight broke out. People were unplugging other’s plugs and plugging theirs in. They started punching and choking each other. They started throwing typewriters at the walls. It was a complete fiasco.

Thereafter, the Bar required that test-takers using electric devices to sign a waiver, assuming the risk if there are any technical problems.

My Personal Nightmare of Both Failing and Passing

I was very blessed the first time I took the California Bar Exam. Everything went well. In fact, things could not have gone better.

I had peaked intellectually, physically, and psychologically. I was relaxed and ready.  

On the morning of the exam I decided to bring a backup portable electric typewriter. During my first essay my typewriter jammed. I quickly replaced it with my backup typewriter and continued, only losing a few seconds. 

Miraculously, my three weakest subjects were not even covered on the test.

The bar results came out four months later. My wife and I started calling to get the results. We called for two hours. The phone lines were constantly busy. 

Finally, during one of my wife’s calls, the operator answered.  “Name please.”  My wife replied, “Brett London.”  “Would you spell that, please?”  “B-r-e-t-t L-o-n-d-o-n.”  The operator responded, “I’m sorry, he did not pass.”

I was devastated.  I would lose my clerkship job.  We would lose our apartment.  I would have to take the test again.  The bottom line was that if I could not pass the exam under such favorable circumstances, there was little likelihood I would never pass.

After two hours of self-pity and moping around, I decided to call again to confirm the information. 

It took me two more hours of telephoning to get through. The operator asked, “Name, please.”  “London, Brett London.” (Like: “Bond, James Bond.”) She inquired, “As in 12042 Nelson Street, Garden Grove.”  “Yes.”  “Congratulations, you passed.”

 Apparently, the prior operator looked under “Brett” rather than “London.” 

For four hours, I knew exactly what it felt like to fail the California bar exam. After struggling with my failure for four hours, I knew what it felt like to pass. I had experienced both the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” 

The Man Who Passed on his 48th Try

One of the great keys to success is perseverance, resilience, grit, enduring to the end.

When first taught law school, I used Compton City Councilor Maxcy Filer as an example of such perseverance.  At that time, he had taken and failed the California state bar 23 times. But he didn’t give up.  He kept plodding along. He took the exam twice every year.

During this time, Maxcy worked as a law clerk for his two attorney sons. They paid for his exams and prep classes.  

Years later, I later learned that Maxcy continued to take the bar exam twice a year for a total of 24 years. He finally passed on his 48th try.

When he passed, his lawyer son commented, “I think I’ll fire him as my law clerk, and make the new attorney carry his own weight around here.”

(In 2016, Maxcy’s son Kelvin became a California Superior Court Judge.)

(Sources: Marc Lacey, “Passing the Test of Time: After 48 Tries, Compton Man Masters Bar Exam,” LA Times, May 31,1991)

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