Five years ago there were 1800 attorneys practicing in San Diego County; today, the figure is closer to 3500.
It is 8:10 a.m., Tuesday, July 25, 1978, and there they are — another crowd of predominantly young, white, clean-cut, male law school graduates waiting to take the California bar exam. Three years of law school are invested in this grueling three-day battery of tests, and only this — the last exam — will tell whether the effort was worth it.
The hopefuls, who continue to approach the Convention and Performing Arts Center from all directions, are easily distinguishable from the early-morning commuters who are walking to their offices. The applicants to the California bar are nervous, tense, and blurry-eyed. Many are wearing sandals, jeans or shorts, and T-shirts. Some carry electric typewriters; a few have more than one. Some have large earphones to minimize distracting sounds during the exams, and others have brought less conspicuous earplugs. Most have a fistful of new ballpoint pens with regulation black or blue ink, as instructed. A few have brought only one pen, thinking it would be enough.
But no one could be too well prepared. This is the California General Bar Examination, the last and by far the most important exam to pass before you can call yourself a lawyer. All those years of education — the four years of college, the three years of law school — mean little if the graduate does not pass this last test. And only thirty-eight percent will pass.
Most of the 900 applicants taking the exam have arrived, and the crowd of nervous hopefuls fills the entire First Avenue side of the convention center. Many of them gravitate toward familiar faces from law school or from the recent six-week bar review course. There is a sense of camaraderie even among strangers as they seek moral support, joke nervously, and wish each other luck.
“Last night,” offers one obviously exhausted and nervous woman, “I could not stop dreaming that I was already answering the questions on the bar.”
“You’re lucky,” someone quips. “In my dreams, I couldn’t answer any of the questions.”
The banter subsides as the crowd begins inching ever so slowly into the building.
Many applicants express a sense of relief that, for better or worse, exam day has arrived and the studying is over.
Since late May, the only world they have known has been the daily regimen of bar review lectures, monkish devotion to law books and outlines, and self-imposed exile in their apartments.
As the weeks before B-day dwindled, more and more time and energy was set aside for studying. Friends went unseen. Alcohol and drugs went untouched. Newspapers went unread. Dishes went unwashed. Lovers went unloved. Beaches, movies, concerts, and baseball standings went unnoticed.
It has seemed as though the most important thing in life is to pass this last test and become a lawyer. And for many gathered outside the convention center, this is the most important event of their lives.
In these times, would-be lawyers also face the hurdle of keeping hope alive despite the reality that California, and San Diego in particular, has become glutted with lawyers. Five years ago there were 1800 attorneys practicing in San Diego County; today, the figure is closer to 3500. The number of law students enrolled in San Diego's four law schools is equal to the present number of local attorneys, so in a few years the number of San Diego lawyers may double again. The largest law school in the country, California Western, has a San Diego campus (as well as an Orange County plant).
Following the laws of economics, price has climbed with demand. University of San Diego Law School’s tuition next year will be $3650; California Western’s will be $3630; Western State Law School charges $70 per unit, or approximately $2100 per year; and Cabrillo Pacific, a small, unaccredited law school, costs $1200 for two semesters.
Each graduate then pays $415 to enroll in one of two privately-run six-week bar review courses to prepare for the California bar exam, and another $190 to take the three-day exam.
And although a mere third of those who passed the last bar exam had lined up jobs at the time they passed, California’s forty-one law schools, most of which are unaccredited, continue to crank out fresh crops of “juris doctors.”
The convention center’s Golden Hall, an enormous room that is a little larger than a basketball court, can barely accommodate the 800 bar applicants who have chosen to answer the exam questions in handwriting.
Those with electric typewriters are herded into the Copper Room, where thick, black electrical cables are strewn about so that every typist can have his own electrical outlet, each with its own fuse box. During the exam last February, someone’s typewriter short-circuited, and the main fuse blew out during the middle of the exam. Pandemonium ensued as scores of angry typists tried to find the problem.
This time everyone has also checked his own typewriter, hoping to avoid the fate of one typist who, a few years back, had carefully read the first essay question, proceeded to type the answer, and then discovered he was typing every letter of his answer, one on top of the other, on the same spot at the top of the blank page. Just one big, indistinguishable black spot. Near panic, time quickly running out, he noticed that the person next to him, in the spirit of preparedness, had brought two extra typewriters. He asked to borrow one. The other typist, too busy typing to look up, said no. After all, this was the essence of competition — the survival of the best prepared. The desperate typist, no doubt after delving into his conscience, grabbed one of the extra typewriters. The owner did not waste time attempting to resist.
Competition has occasionally reared its ugly head in other ways. Once a student dropped his pen, only to have it kicked across the room by the applicant seated next to him.
The Silver Room has been set aside for applicants with manual typewriters. While the others will listen to the hum of 800 pens going at once or to the clacking of ninety electric typewriters, these fifteen with manual typewriters will be able to work in relative solitude.
Everyone is silent now, seated in a chair corresponding to his application number and listening to the head proctor’s amplified voice: “Place your right thumb on the side of the slide that says, ‘This Side Up.’ Gently press down....”
Departing from the prepared instructions, the elderly proctor, veteran of fifteen years of bar examinations, cautions, “Don’t press down too hard, ’cause it will just leave a black smudge.”
Other proctors situated in strategic areas of the room assist those who are unprepared in the art of fingerprinting.
The instructions are given simultaneously in Golden Hall, the Copper Room, and the Silver Room.
The final instructions for the exam are: “Should you have to leave during the examination session, we request that you sign your name on the sheet at the proctor’s table outside the door. Also write down the time you leave or return. In the past we’ve had people get sick, so this is just for us to know if we should send someone out for you.”
Most of the applicants are already familiar with stories about people who have become physically and/or mentally unable to finish the exam. One year a student had to be dragged out. In the middle of a session, he got up, locked his arms behind his back, and began pacing up and down the aisle, repeating, “The Rule Against Perpetuities means that an interest is void if there is any possibility that it may vest more than twenty-one years after some life in being at the creation of the interest.”
“No one,” the proctor reminds everyone, “is to use the telephone or talk to anyone during the exam session. The time is now 8:43 a.m. The session will end at 12:13. At 12:08 you will be given a five-minute warning. The afternoon session will begin at 1:30 p.m. You may now begin.”
And with those words, the long awaited and dreaded exam has begun. During the next three days there will be fifteen essay questions (of which only twelve must be answered), and including an additional 240 multiple-choice questions, which will include items assessing professional responsibility — all courtesy of ETS (Educational Testing Service), the same Princeton, N.J., company that brought us the PS AT, the SAT, the LSAT, the GRE, and the MCAT.
The application forms to take the California bar exam are themselves a test. Applicants must sign up and submit their forms months before the exam.
Name, social security number, date of birth, and a permanent address must be entered on dozens of forms.
Fingerprints of both the left and the right hands must be furnished, in duplicate, on FBI standardized cards. The irony of prospective lawyers standing in the fingerprint line with handcuffed suspects who have been arrested for assorted crimes has elicited more than one attempt at humor by amused police officers.
A good moral character, according to the profession, is more important than passing the bar. Consequently, there are several questions designed to identify applicants who have been arrested or even suspended from school, and asking them to explain the circumstances. Some states more conservative than California ask questions like, “Have you ever done anything for which you could have been arrested?” Other states — most recently Virginia — have prevented women from becoming lawyers because they lived with men without the benefit of marriage.
The California bar asks for a half dozen references, preferably from lawyers or judges who have known you outside of school, and a certificate of good moral character from a law school dean whom most students never meet. Educational history is documented with transcripts from colleges and law schools the applicant has attended, including any correspondence courses. In fact, California is the only state allowing a person who has finished a mail order law school program to take the bar exam and become a lawyer. For out-of-state law graduates, there is the added request for a letter explaining why they did not send in their twenty-five dollars three years ago, when they began law school, to register as a law student.
Finally, everyone must sign an oath, promising not to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.
In contrast to the complex set of forms required of those who want to take the bar exam, much less is asked of those interested in the bar review courses: name, address, and “make checks payable to....”
The bar review course is a must. One would think that after three years of law school, most individuals would be more than adequately prepared to take the bar exam. But some of the more cynical attorneys contend that law school has nothing to do with the day-to-day practice of law, and that the bar exam has nothing to do with either law school or actual law practice.
Anyone, whether or not they went to law school, could conceivably pass the bar after taking a six-week bar review course. Some have in fact passed without a law-school background, but always under experimental conditions, as only law-school graduates are permitted to take the bar exam. Three years of law school are easily condensed into those six weeks. A year-long, two-semester course is reduced to three days of lectures and then further compacted into a two-hour mini-review at the end of the course.
“After taking that bar review course,” comments one student, “it makes you wonder why they drag out law school for three years.”
The daily lectures, both live and video, are conducted by private organizations at the University of San Diego Law School campus and at the El Cortez Hotel. Each course conducted this June and July attracted about 400 students.
A sample of the most recent courses held at these rented lecture halls attracted a rather homogeneous, stereotypical group of law students. In the heyday of affirmative action, it is surprising to find that a group of California law school graduates includes no blacks. Chicanos and Asians were also conspicuously underrepresented, and only about ten percent were women.
The group did include some picturesque minorities, however. There were the two law students who had been arrested for dealing large quantities of drugs: one had been caught with eighty-five pounds of misdemeanor weed, while the other had been arrested a few weeks earlier at Lindbergh Field with ten pounds of hashish. And there was the grandfather, a New York attorney who had graduated from law school back in 1942. He continually complained about how the bar review lecturers — professors from law schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley — were unnecessarily complicating the subject matter. There were two military attorneys, one from Kansas and the other from Maryland, who after putting in their eight-hour work days, commuted the five or six nights a week between San Diego and Camp Pendleton, each bringing a thermos filled with lukewarm coffee to the not-so-stimulating lectures.
Lecturers did try to keep their audience awake, however, with a combination of puns, jokes, and stories; and if these did not work, instructors would say, “Now this has been on the exam eight times in the last ten years.”
The puns and jokes were aimed at the jaded law student:
—“Sodomy will not be on the exam, but after the exam....” —“An oral contract with part performance is not voided by the Statute of Frauds. Oral is fine. Ask your friends.”
—“In conclusion, according to the Supreme Court, anytime a Jehovah’s Witness challenges the Constitution, he wins.”
—“The Supreme Court has ruled that you need a hearing before you suspend a kid from school, but a teacher can beat his students when he wants. Trouble is, where I teach, the law students would enjoy it.”
—“Nothing makes a lawyer happier than a client who walks into his office missing one of his limbs.”
Those who administer the bar review courses say that they do everything possible, short of furnishing the students with the actual answers, to enable the serious student to pass.
The best professors in the country are used. Books, outlines, and handouts are furnished. Old bar exam questions, both essay and multiple-choice, are carefully analyzed. Persons who have written old exam questions and those who have graded them explain the process and try to give students short-cuts and helpful hints. A simulated three-day bar exam is even given and graded before the course ends.
And if a student does not pass after all this, there is one consolation: the results are guaranteed to the extent that second-timers can repeat the bar review for fifty dollars, rather than the $415 first-time fee.
“The war is over,” someone yells from across the room. Sounds of laughter, yelling, and animated conversation fill the convention center as the most recent group of bar applicants end three exhausting seven-hour days and begin their re-entry into the world they knew before all this craziness began.
“Have a good summer.” “See you at the swearing in.” “Come over to my place; we’ve got a half gallon of strawberry daiquiri waiting for us.”
But though the initial reaction of this frazzled crew is one of relief, they must wait four months before learning their bar exam scores — and whether or not they have earned the right to call themselves lawyers.
The mood is generally optimistic, but there are also some pessimists who are already saying, “See you at the bar review course,” “I didn’t want to be a lawyer anyway,” and “Now I know how Jerry Brown felt.”
Governor Brown is an inspiration to many taking the bar exam, because the reality is that of the 900 persons leaving the convention center, approximately sixty per cent — 540 of them — will not pass and will, like Governor Brown, start the entire process all over again: the application to take the bar exam, the bar review course, and the three-day exam, to be given again the last week of February, 1979.
“Brown eventually passed,” offered a rumpled young man, trying to console both himself and the bar applicant who had mentioned Brown’s name.
“Yeah,” was the quick reply, “he passed. On his fourth try.”