ADVANCE COPY — FOR RELEASE TO THE PRESS AND PUBLIC ON JUNE 20, 2013
Judith Collins, Director of Research (Email Judy, 202-835-1001)
James Leipold, Executive Director (Email James, 202-835-1001)
Law School Class of 2012 Finds More Jobs, Starting Salaries Rise — But Large Class Size Hurts Overall Employment Rate
According to Selected Findings from the Employment Report and Salary Survey for the Class of 2012 released today by NALP, the overall employment rate for new law school graduates fell to 84.7%. Even though the overall number of jobs obtained by this class was higher than the number of jobs obtained by the previous class, the Class of 2012 was also bigger. When coupled with fewer law-school funded positions, this resulted in the overall employment rate for the Class of 2012 falling almost a full percentage point from the 85.6% measured for the prior year. The overall rate has now fallen for five years in a row since 2008. With the Class of 2012 there are a number of markers that signify continuing weaknesses in the entry-level legal job market, but nonetheless some signs of improvement are also evident. The employment profile for this class also reflects a “new normal” in which large firm hiring has recovered some but remains far below pre-recession highs. To read the full text of “Employment for the Class of 2012 — Selected Findings” go to www.nalp.org/classof2012. NALP’s findings for the Class of 2012 will be released in much greater detail in August 2013 in a report entitled Jobs & JDs: Employment and Salaries of New Law School Graduates — Class of 2012.
NALP measures the employment rate of law graduates as of February 15, or nine months after a typical May graduation. Analyses of these data for the Class of 2012 (measured in February of 2013) reveal an employment rate that has fallen more than seven percentage points since reaching a 24-year high of 91.9% in 2007 and that marks the lowest employment rate since the aftermath of the last significant recession to affect the U.S. legal economy. Since 1985 there have only been two classes with an overall employment rate below 84.7%, and both of those occurred in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 recession: 83.5% for 1992 and 83.4% for 1993. The employment rate for the Class of 1994 was 84.7%, the same as for the Class of 2012. (For information on trends in graduate employment going back to 1985, see www.nalp.org/trends.)
In commentary accompanying the Selected Findings, NALP Executive Director James Leipold noted, “It is important to understand that the jobs picture is improving, if only slightly. This class found more jobs — and more jobs in private practice — than the previous class, but because the national graduating class was so much bigger, the overall employment rate continued to fall. Median starting salaries for this class have also rebounded slightly, reflecting the availability of more jobs with the largest law firms — those that pay the highest salaries — than existed for the previous class. On the other hand, the percentage of graduates who found full-time, long term employment in jobs requiring bar passage remained below 60%. It is a story of good news and bad news at this point. I continue to believe that the Class of 2011 represented the absolute bottom of the curve on the jobs front, and the results for the Class of 2012 bear that out, showing, as they do, a number of improving markers.”
Just Over Half of Employed Grads Found Jobs in Private Practice
Additional analyses of the jobs data for the Class of 2012 reveal that just over half (50.7%) of employed graduates obtained a job in private practice, up from 49.5% for the Class of 2011 and close to the 50.9% figure recorded for the Class of 2010. However, that figure for the Class of 2010 marked a full 5 percentage point decline from 2009. For most of the 39 years for which NALP has collected employment information, the percentage of jobs in law firms has been in the 55-58% range and has been below 50% only once before 2011; that was in 1975. The combination of a larger number of jobs overall and a higher percentage of jobs in law firms means that the number of law firm jobs is up by almost 8%, and is the largest number since 2009.
Additionally, jobs in the largest firms, those with more than 500 lawyers, have rebounded substantially from their low point in 2011, and accounted for 19.1% of jobs taken in law firms, compared with only 16.2% in 2011. The number of jobs taken in these firms — over 3,600 — is up by 27% over 2011 levels, representing a recovery almost to 2010 levels but to nowhere near the 2009 figure of more than 5,100 jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, jobs in the smallest firms of 2-10 lawyers, while remaining almost flat as a percentage of jobs, grew in raw numbers to almost 8,200, from less than 7,600 in 2011.
Median Starting Salaries Rise Slightly
Salary information was reported for almost 65% of the jobs reported as full-time and lasting at least a year. The national median salary for the Class of 2012 based on these reported salaries was $61,245, compared with $60,000 for the Class of 2011, and is the first year-over-year increase in the overall median since 2008, when the median increased to $72,000. The national mean for the Class of 2012 was $80,798, compared with $78,653 for the Class of 2011. The increase can be attributed largely to the bounce back in law firm jobs, particularly at large firms. Nonetheless the overall salary median, and the median for law firm jobs specifically, remain below those of 2008-2010.
The national median salary at law firms based on reported salaries was $90,000, compared with $85,000 the prior year. With salary medians by firm size remaining essentially unchanged, the modest increase in the overall median is largely attributable to the increase in the number of large firm jobs, with salaries of $160,000 now accounting for over 29% of reported law firm salaries. At the same time, although salaries of $160,000 still prevail at the largest firms, their share has dropped since 2010. And though still a tiny minority — less than 4% — salaries of $50,000 to $99,000 for bar passage required jobs at large firms are more common than just two years ago, as more graduates are taking staff attorney or similar positions at lower salaries. (See Table 1 below.)
Table 1 — Median Starting Salaries 2008 – 2012
|Law Firm Median||
Median salaries in other sectors have remained relatively flat in recent years. The median salary for government jobs has remained unchanged since 2009, at $52,000. The median salary at public interest organizations, which includes legal services providers and public defenders, was $44,600 in 2012, down a bit from 2011 but still up from just under $43,000 for the two prior years. The median salary for judicial clerkships was $52,600, little changed from $52,000 in 2010 and 2011, but up from $50,000 in 2009.
Despite Some Improvement, Jobs Market Still Contains Many Weaknesses
Despite these signs of modest improvement, there are still signs of great structural weakness in the entry-level job market. For instance, of those graduates for whom employment status was known, only 64.4% obtained a job for which bar passage is required. This figure has fallen over 10 percentage points just since 2008 — when it was 74.7% — and is the lowest percentage NALP has ever measured. An additional 13.3% obtained jobs for which a JD provides an advantage in obtaining the job, or may even be required, but for which bar passage is not required (these are often described as law-related jobs). This compares with 12.5% for the Class of 2011 and is the highest figure recorded since NALP began comparable tracking in 2001. The percentage of graduates employed in other capacities (professional and non-professional jobs) was 6.7%. The unemployment rate was also up for this class, measured at 12.8%, up 0.7% percentage points from the 12.1% measured for the Class of 2011. Of the remaining graduates for whom employment status was known, 0.5% had accepted a job as of February 15, 2013 but had not yet started that job, and just over 2% of the 2012 graduates were continuing their academic studies full time. In a piece of brighter news, however, the percentage of jobs reported as part-time was down somewhat from the previous year — 9.8%, compared with over 11% in 2011 — and going down instead of up for the first time since 2007. A portion of the decline may be attributable to fewer law-school funded positions and the portion of those law-school funded positions which are part-time falling from almost two-thirds to just over half. The figure nonetheless contrasts with 6.5% for 2008 and about 5% in the years immediately prior to that. About 4.6% of jobs were both temporary (defined as lasting less than a year) and part-time, a figure that is also down from over 7% in 2011, the only year with comparable information. Of the 64.4% of graduates for whom employment status was known who obtained a job for which bar passage was required, just over 6% of these jobs were reported as part-time, and therefore the percentage employed in a full-time job requiring bar passage is only 60.7%. Because some of these jobs will last less than one year, the percentage employed full time in jobs requiring bar passage that will last at least a year is only 58.3%. Nonetheless, both these figures are improvements over 2011, which were 60% and 56.7%, respectively.
Part-time jobs were found in all employment sectors, but were especially prevalent in academic settings, at 39%, followed by public interest at 18%. Both figures are down from the figures of 43% and 24% of jobs, respectively, measured for the previous class.
Information collected on funding for jobs with a fixed duration reveals that just over 4% of jobs were reported as funded by the graduate’s law school compared with almost 5% for the Class of 2011. Although 72% of these jobs were reported as bar passage required, almost half (47%) were reported as part-time, and almost two-thirds (62%) were reported as lasting less than a year. Most of these jobs were in public interest, government, and academic settings. The total number of public interest jobs, which includes jobs in public defender and legal services offices, has grown by over 700 since 2008; the number of academic jobs is up by about 200, in no small part because of the presence of law-school funded jobs in these sectors. One-quarter of the academic jobs taken by the Class of 2012 were reported as being research assistant/fellow position funded by the law school.
“The employment picture remains decidedly mixed,” noted NALP Executive Director James Leipold. “However, with the Class of 2012 we see the beginning of a rebounding private practice sector, particularly at large law firms, and, with that, we see some rebounding salary numbers. However, we still see very high unemployment and underemployment, and there are no indications that the employment situation will return to anything like what it was before the recession. Adding to the complexity of the jobs picture this year the data show that law schools funded fewer jobs for this class than they did for the previous class, and that certainly contributed to the overall employment rate falling further. That an adjustment was made there is not unexpected. Some schools were funding jobs at a level that was economically unsustainable over the long haul. Looking ahead, I would expect to see the employment picture for the Class of 2013 continue to improve, although that is another very large graduating class, and that will take a toll on the overall employment rate. As class sizes come down over time and the legal employment market stabilizes somewhat, I would expect to continue to see modest improvements in the job market in the near and medium term future,” concluded Leipold.
Figures compiled by NALP differ slightly from those released earlier this year by the American Bar Association (ABA) for several reasons. The most important of these is that the ABA calculates its percentages based on the entire class, including those for whom employment status is not known. The expansion of the base to include all graduates will by definition lower all the percentages. For example, the 195 schools reporting to NALP included almost 1,100 graduates for whom employment status was unknown. Second, the ABA figures include the three ABA-approved schools in Puerto Rico, whereas the NALP survey does not include these schools. Third, schools are not required to report whether a job is full-time/part-time or short-term/long-term to NALP if that information is not known about the job, whereas both of these pieces of information are required for the ABA. Although not affecting a large number of jobs, this can affect percentages by a small amount. Lastly, NALP’s research methodology includes an extensive process of quality control and follow-up with schools to ensure, to the extent possible, that job information is internally consistent and in compliance with definitions used by both NALP and the ABA. This process can result in small revisions and adjustments that are not reflected in the data posted by the ABA.
The findings of NALP’s Employment Report and Salary Survey for the Class of 2012 will be reported in much greater detail — including salary detail and analyses of employment and earnings by geographic market — in Jobs & JDs: Employment and Salaries of New Law School Graduates — Class of 2012 — to be published in August 2013.
When I was teaching each of my kids to ride a bicycle, I had options. I could lecture them on riding a bicycle. I could read them a book about riding a bicycle. I could show them a video about riding a bicycle. I could even get on the bicycle myself and ride up and down the sidewalk in front of them to demonstrate how to ride a bicycle. But until my kids put their butts on the seat and started pedaling, they were never going to learn to ride a bicycle.
This comparison comes to mind every time I read something about experiential learning and how it’s the new hot ticket in law schools. Experiential learning is now on the front burner of almost every law school’s plans. After the Carnegie Commission report in 2007, the idea of increasing skills training for law students has gained momentum like a great big rock rolling down a very steep hill, with the goal of producing “practice-ready” lawyers being talked about by dean after dean, faculty after faculty.
I suspect that many residents of Nita City have listened to these discussions and thought: “And?” We might be forgiven for thinking that way, since NITA has always been about learning by doing, or, in the current vernacular, experiential learning. I’m not here to pat us on our collective backs. Rather, I’d like to suggest that we, as folks already familiar with this learning style, can be of service to law schools, and by extension, to the generations of lawyers who will come after us.
Like many of you do at your local law school, I serve as an Adjunct Professor at The University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law (“SCOL”) where I teach Basic and Advanced Trial Practice and the Judicial Externship Seminar. My Trial Practice classes are taught on a straight NITA model, using NITA case files: my students do an opening statement or a closing argument or examine a witness, I critique them, and when possible, they repeat the performance after my critique. Their final exam is a trial in my courtroom, with another NITA-trained judge or lawyer presiding. I enjoy teaching these classes very much, and I hope my students benefit from them. At least four other NITA program teachers also teach courses at SCOL.
I’d like to urge those of you who are not already either full-time academics or adjuncts to examine your schedules and try to find time to help your local law school with some experiential learning. The first place to look is, of course, the Trial Advocacy Program at your school. Even if you can’t teach a class yourself, the professor in charge of your school’s trial advocacy program may use adjuncts as a key component of his program, like Chris Behan does at Southern Illinois. Maybe you could offer to teach a specific skill set, like motions practice, or depositions. Or perhaps there are so-called doctrinal cases you can help with, such as evidence, or civil or criminal procedure. Those classes are easily adapted to include actual performance of courtroom skills. And if you can’t teach a class alone, how about teaming up with one or two other folks?
There also may be opportunities to actually work on the policy aspects of getting experiential learning up and running. For example, Mark Caldwell and I are two of three non-faculty members of SCOL’s Modern Learning Committee, which is tasked with implementing The Carnegie Commission’s recommendations. Mark and I have presented to the faculty, showing them things we do at NITA programs that are translatable to their classrooms.
I acknowledge that you may get resistance if you make these kinds of overtures. But any law school that tries to give experiential learning short shrift is asking to be overrun by the schools that embrace it. Our offers to help should be sincere and guided by our love for the law and for the profession of lawyering. We care about this stuff, and that caring ought to be contagious. As NITA teachers, we each have a body of knowledge and information that we already know can pay dividends in the real world – and not just specific skills, but larger ideas on how to effectively communicate, persuade and learn. Many of us already participate in the academy, but more of us should. To quote Winston Zeddemore: “We have the tools, and we have the talent.” We should make every effort to share both.
Let’s do what we can to get those students on the bike and pedaling.
This post was written by NITA guest-blogger Bob McGahey.
We love our summer season, filled with more of our signature Public Programs than any other season. I just returned from visiting the Western Regional Trial Program in San Francisco – 56 fine lawyers working with a stellar faculty in ways that inspire confidence, participation, risks, and rewards. They try their NITA cases this weekend, and I wish I were there to see them!
It is a good time to think about how you can reach the promising young lawyers you know, and tell them about NITA. They probably heard of us in law school from a NITA case file or treatise, or perhaps moot court. But until they entered practice, they could not imagine the difference our programs make in every lawyer’s comfort and effectiveness at trial or in deposition. Now they need to know about us!
As you think about who can improve her or his career through NITA work, here are some things you might consider:
As Executive Director, I can confirm what I had thought to be true: the in-house programs, whether NITA’s Custom programs for firms, or the firm’s own program, work well in tandem with a larger NITA training strategy. Before coming to this position, I had helped my global firm design one of the first in-house academies. I knew that the incisive NITA training across the appropriate associate class was magical for the firm. I knew, at the same time, that the firm’s upcoming stars (those who would be taking trial witnesses, and would likely lead future trial teams) extended their learning and solidified their strength by going from their firm academy to a NITA a Public Program.
Why? Risk. The Public Program allows – actually encourages – high risk learning. The lawyer tries something one would never experiment with on a client matter – or before the firm’s partner/teachers in an academy. Try it once. Get a critique. Then try it differently. The lawyer can take wild risks trying his style, following her instincts, attempting a risky cross, closing with a novel approach. Trying and receiving critiques is the core of the NITA Public Programs. Moreover, in the Public Program, colleagues taking the course are strangers at the beginning but teammates by the end.
Calculated risk, trained instincts, mastery of examination processes, repeated practice runs with critiques, and teaming to crack the theme of the case. The Public Program confers a special maturity. It fits both the lawyer groomed in firm academies, and the lawyer who learned through actual practice. Our faculty individualizes their teaching. They pack more learning into a few days than can be imagined, and our participants take unimaginable risks, achieving big rewards.
Think ahead to help your colleagues plan. Whether summer or early fall, get the word out that the programs are filling. Summer – 14 programs around the country from June 24 through September. www.nita.org/Shop#programs
“Mister Hart, here is a dime….”
How many of us have talked to someone who’s thinking about attending law school? They always ask us, “what’s it like?” And we tell them about our experience as students, maybe about our experience as teachers, too. Each of us has a unique perspective on the question. But though we might disagree on what to say when asked, “what’s law school like?” we should be able to agree on one thing: What law school most emphatically is not like is the Harvard Law School portrayed in 1973’s The Paper Chase. Well, not completely, anyway.
For the two lawyers out there who haven’t seen this movie, it stars Timothy Bottoms as Hart, a first-year law student from Minnesota. It also stars Lindsay Wagner as his girlfriend. (Yes, their relationship has a very Hollywood-ian twist.) But no one remembers either one of them. And that’s for a very good reason.
The real main character of The Paper Chase is Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., who teaches first-year contracts. Played by John Houseman in an Oscar-winning performance, Kingsfield seems to epitomize what many people believe law school professors are like: cold, heartless, intellectually superior paragons. He sees his task as creating different people who think a different way: “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Kingsfield teaches using intimidation and humiliation. His conflict with Hart is the guts of the movie. After an early embarrassment of Hart, Kingsfield utters my favorite speech from this movie: “Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.” When Kingsfield finally pushes Hart to the breaking point and kicks him out of class, Hart bursts out with: “You… are a SON OF A BITCH, Kingsfield.” Kingsfield’s taciturn reply: “Mr. Hart! That is the most intelligent thing you’ve said all day. You may take your seat.” How Hart resolves his feelings about Kingsfield, his girlfriend and the law bring the movie to its finish – and, of course, all of those things intersect.
When you watch this movie again, I’m sure that Houseman’s performance will blow you away. He deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. What’s remarkable is that before this, he hadn’t done much acting. He had a long and distinguished career as both a producer and a director in theater, radio drama and movies, including working closely with Orson Welles in the 30’s and 40’s. He was cast as Kingsfield only after a number of other actors, including James Mason (The Verdict) and Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons) had either turned down the part or were unavailable.
This movie has particular resonance with me, since I graduated from DU Law School in 1974, the year after The Paper Chase came out. As a DU graduate of that era, I had my own very Kingsfield-like professor, although he wasn’t nearly so nasty, just phenomenally brilliant and really scary. It also should be noted that Kingsfield’s style of teaching is no longer the norm, if it ever was. As an adjunct professor at DU Law School, a participant at EATS and an attendee of several IAALS conferences, I know that the vast majority of today’s law school professors may be tough, but they are also compassionate, understanding and willing to go the extra mile to help their students succeed. This is especially true of the folks who teach Trial Advocacy. Many denizens of Nita City teach Trail Advocacy in addition to practicing law and judging, and some of our best NITA instructors are full-time academics, people like Charlie Rose, Chris Behan and Tom Stewart.
For those of us who attended law school, The Paper Chase will surely bring back memories, some good, some not. For those who haven’t been to law school, it’s worth a look just to see Houseman’s performance. Heck, you can even recommend it to someone thinking about going to law school. Just don’t let it scare them off.
This post was written by NITA guest-blogger Bob McGahey.
The following post was originally written for the BetterNoahLawyer.com by Noah Weil.
As I’ve written about before I enjoy talking to prospective law students and the general public about law school and lawyering. Some people like to hear about studying and grades and police and courtrooms. What I don’t get asked about too often is the bridge between law school and a license to practice: the bar exam.
I’m sure the potential law students don’t ask about it because to them the decision is whether to go to law school in the first place. They assume, perhaps rightly, that if they’re good enough or motivated enough to attend law school, one final exam won’t tip the scales.
And the people who want to know about the practice of law don’t really care how you got there. “What’s it like visiting prison or being in trial?” they might inquire. No one has ever asked about my grades or my professors’ names. I imagine asking about the bar is in same rubric of “interesting but irrelevant.”
But there are a few reasons why a post on the bar exam is worth sharing. First of all, it’s an experience really unlike any other. It’s so unique, it’s interesting for that alone. Secondly it is highly relevant for the people who do want to become attorneys, the last hurdle they’ll need to overcome. There’s a historical component, which I’ll get to later. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s good to know that whatever lawyer you work with, for any issue, you know they have the chops to conquer one of the more grueling tests out there.
Law School Exams
What I didn’t realize until much later was that the bar exam is really an enhanced, or twisted, version of a law school exam. I’ll explain.
Most law school classes, especially in the first year, have a clear-cut grading process: for each course, the final test determines the final grade. This means no graded assignments, no participation bonuses, no final project.
At the end of a semester the professor reminds the class of the existence of a final exam and by the way it’s coming up soon. This is kind of pointless because if you haven’t gotten the material yet, two weeks is an awfully short time to master a subject. And in any event, the people that were paying attention were very aware the semester was ending and an exam was looming.
Semesters end on a Thursday. Starting the next Monday, and for the 13 days after, we would be in finals-land. Every 2-3 days, we would have a final exam in a subject. In law school, those two weeks really suck.
The “trick” for studying for a law school exam was to pour yourself into a subject, master it, ace the exam, then completely forget the material and transition to the next test 48 hours hence. You get the hang of it but it’s not easy and never fun. Around exam time, especially for the first year students, the tension is remarkably thick. Needless to say, I managed to scrape by for the three years.
Graduating from law school was great. My parents flew out, I graduated with honors, we had a party. They gave me a fancy piece of paper (now framed in my office), etc.
Unfortunately, and again I emphasize this for my prospective lawyer friends, graduating from law school does not really do anything. In fact, telling someone you’re a juris doctor emphasizes the fact that you have a degree but are not a lawyer. What a law degree gives you is the ability to write “J.D.” after your signature (whee!) and admission to take the test to become an actual, licensed attorney. So graduating from school was great, and then there’s a lot of studying. If I remember correctly, the bar review course began 11 days after graduation.
Studying for the bar
What prompted me to write this little essay was that Washington is changing their bar exam. That means all the information I’m about to describe is now useless. Oh well.
Washington (used to) have a very odd bar exam compared to the rest of the country. In almost every other state, the exam included a “multistate” portion of universal-ish law, and some essay questions, and maybe a kind of practical issue, like writing a motion. Some states had ethics portions before the exam, some during, and some after.
Washington eschewed the Multistate portion and the practice portion. Instead it’s three days of essay testing. Two solid days of exclusive Washington law questions, followed by a half day of Washington ethics questions. If you failed one portion but not the other you only had to take the failed part again. But both the substantive and ethics portions needed to be passed in order to get a license to practice law. Did I mention that the bar exam is only offered twice a year? Yes, testing only occurs in February and August. Failing either or both halves meant you wouldn’t get another crack at it for six months.
The substantive essays broke down as follows: three blocks per day, each block lasting 2.25 hours, each consisting of three essay questions. Broken down further that means each essay is an average of 45 minutes per. And you’d do 18 of these over the course of the first two days.
It turned out from bar review that these essays were much, much different than the law school exam.
Law school tests are all about splitting the middle. Those exams are complex questions going deep into a subject, where the “right” answer was impossible to find, and probably irrelevant besides. A student’s job was to note branching lines of exploration and analyze each decision tree to its logical conclusion. Get enough “analysis” points and do well, simple as that. Whether the plaintiff won or lost was completely irrelevant to the final score, it was simply about showing how you got there. Law school exams were 3-4 hours long, often consisting of a single question.
The bar is composed of much simpler questions, with correspondingly less text to analyze and less room to do it in. Each test taker has that 45 minutes and 4,369 characters to answer a single essay question. With such little time and space, you do not have time to delve deep into veins of insight. In other words, you are tested on awareness of issues rather than analysis; breadth over depth. Your goal is to spot the issues, not explore them to death.
Studying for the bar consisted of attending bar review class (about three hours a day), outlining notes, discussing subjects, and doing practice questions. I say with no hyperbole that I studied for the exam every single day, 7 days a week.
I really wanted to hit the ground running, so I just went full out the first week. Class and study from sunrise to way past sundown. What happened? I got sick. I came down with a nasty cold around day 4, which ended up creating some sub-productive days afterward. I don’t know if the cold was a coincidence or just my bodily response to diving into the material, but the end result was that I took it a little easier on myself when I recovered. Some days were those sunup to sundown, and some were only four hours or whatever.
There is no universal advice for how much to study per se, except that sources agree you should not be doing anything else (e.g. working, planning a wedding, giving birth, enjoying life). Those same sources always included a bit about “spending the time to stay healthy” (e.g. exercise, social time), but that always struck me as the ubiquitous “Most importantly: HAVE FUN!!!” instructions one would see, on say, a colonoscopy checklist. Half meaningless, and regardless, easier said than done.
My study material was my conjoined twin. I would read while joining people for dinner, while donating blood, and during other periods of reflection (pooping). The goal was always to understanding the material enough to recognize the issue in a narrative, and parrot back the talking points.
Originally this was where I would get tripped up. I was excellent at understanding the material, solid on recognizing issues, but poor at verbatim regurgitation. My style of learning was to fit the material to my consciousness, not the other way around. What do I mean by this?
Understand that the bar is taken by between 400 and 600 applicants each offering. Every exam is graded by a human being, usually the same human being. This person does not have the mental stamina to properly grade an infinite variety of style and prose. They have a heuristic in their head on how an answer “should” look. That means a certain recitation of “buzz words,” and language were the bread-and-butter of exam answers, the point-getters.
And as I said these de facto lines were not always at the tip of my tongue. Frankly it was my error; I was genuinely focused on learning rather than rote repetition. Much, much later I realized I would have to write the key lines over and over again for a subject so that my fingers would get the memory of it. It worked pretty well.
There are a lot of problems with this test, not the least of which the preceding paragraph says: knowledge is less important than memorization. But the real problem of the test is how corrosive it is to your psyche. I’ll share my experience, but from talks with other test-takers, mine was hardly unique.
For law school exams the pressure was there, but you were just moving too fast over a short amount of time to truly suffer. Well, some people suffered. But for me there was no time to dwell. For the bar, the long-term aspects of the test are monstrous. I pride myself on someone who does his best to take things in a laid-back manner. Sometimes I fail at this, but I do my best. My clients have commented my even-keeled demeanor helps when they’re stressed. Regardless the bar shredded my sense of self-serenity.
I found myself irritated at the slightest things, then being irritated I was irritated.. Other test takes got together regularly to complain, but not so long to interrupt study time. It was a vicious cycle, and it only got worse as the weeks went on. Words don’t do it justice.
I was studying for the July test and so I started in May. Suddenly, at the end of June, the test was a mere few weeks away. I went into utter crash mode, taking crazy nights and trying to get in as many practice questions as possible. I listed every subject on paper, hung them up, then put colored hash marks based on my self-grading of the question after. Too many red marks meant hitting the subject hard. The scores were my own call of course; I had no real clue how an actual grader would take the essay. I merely had the question and a sample answer, and had to go from there. Paper and marker were scattered everywhere, like a kid trying to recreate the realization scene from a Beautiful Mind (a frazzled mind?). All this to say studying for the thing made us a little crazy.
One other ridiculous aspect was the monetary investment required. People actually took out loans in order to take the exam. They are called “Bar Loans.” X weeks of not working is certainly a finance drainer, but there are other costs as well. The fee for merely sitting for the exam is over $500, plus another $120 if you want the privilege of taking the exam on your computer (I did). Common practice has the test taker check into a hotel through the length of the exam, so there’s a chunk right there. And, I don’t know, you have to drink a lot on either outcome, so there’s a bill as well.
Now I don’t want to say the process was all bad. At the peak, we knew more varied Washington law than I ever had before and probably ever will again. How much law? We knew how to legally get married, get divorced, get custody, get palimony, all while simultaneously forming an LLC, partnership, and corporation, funding them with the profits from suits from all the negligence and slander you can assume was suffered daily, all while defending one’s self from indecent liberties charges, of course at the same as originating a securitized loan, entering into a contract to sell some goods, buy a house, sell the other house, sue the state, not sue an Indian tribe, establish a trust, and execute a valid will. And do so by correctly writing a check.
And, then, it was the night before. Everyone agreed you were incapable of learning the day before the test; advice I completely ignored as I cracked the books for a bit longer. But I did have the foresight to know I would need to take my mind off the tomorrow’s festivities, so I brought along a non-law book to help me relax.
It was the Daily Show: America book. Hilarious book. A book where all they talk about is systems of laws and governments. Terrible choice. After reading something about the Magna Carta being the origin of the escheat principle I gave up in disgust. I spent the next 10 minutes telling myself not to cite to the Magna Carta on the exam, and the next 120 minutes trying to sleep. It didn’t work. The Magna Carta part worked, the sleeping not so much. Oh well.
I woke up at about 5 and to hit the gym to wake my blood up. Registration (at 6:30! in the morning!) was uneventful. Thankfully there was no problem with the cardboard.
Oh yes the cardboard. Well that computer fee I mentioned above allowed me to license exam software to take the test on a computer. This software disabled your computer’s higher functions, allowing you to securely use a word processing program to write and securely transmit your answers. Aside from, say, language settings and the like, the software narrowed your computer’s capabilities significantly. It was a neat little application.
Except it didn’t quite work right for my machine. It reset the computer into “exam mode” easily enough, but it didn’t quite maintain the correct settings. Like most laptops, mine had a touchpad. Like most, mine came with “double tap,” which allows you to tap the touchpad twice as a functional left click. I hate this feature, because I am always clicking inadvertently because I’m a spaz. This disabling was not carried over to the exam mode. In fact it worsened. Instead of double tap being restored, single tap was turned on.
This is worse than it sounds. The cursor would fly all over the place making me insert sentences into already-written, tight paragraphs. It also had the fatal effect of highlighting a section while I was typing, meaning I could instantly replace huge swaths of text with “t.”
This was a serious problem. Handwriting was never an option; my handwriting is best described as an epileptic horse scribbling during an earthquake. So what to do?
The tech support was no help. They suggested I alternatively tinker with the BIOS until I found the one that disabled the touchpad entirely, or find a rodent to Ratatouille-style manipulate my hands during the exam. Both sounded risky and time-consuming.
The solution was low-tech: a small piece of cardboard on top of the touchpad blocked it entirely. Plug in a mouse, and voila, I was set. I only had to get the approval of the WSBA to bring the blank, 3” by 3” piece of cardboard into the exam room. This required me to forward mine and tech support’s entire email conversation to the WSBA, which revealed the long rant where I tell the tech people how many different circles of hell they qualified to enter upon what I hoped was their violent, imminent death (I didn’t know the right answer because they refused to tell me if they were baptized). Did I mention during this process I was irritable? The WSBA did accede though, and I was permitted to bring those few inches’ worth of cardboard into the room. I also got seated at Table 1, which seemed like a good omen.
I set up and spent a few minutes chatting with the test-taker next to me. She seemed nice. I forget her name instantly, although I’ve since run into her. Her name is Mindy. She’s a prosecutor. She passed.
We were given lots of serious instructions about STOPPING when told to STOP and if you need to VOMIT please do not VOMIT in the TESTING AREA and also do not CHEAT. Who in the hell would risk cheats after this much investment? I mean, I guess if you hadn’t studied you could go for it, but would they even let you take the test again if they kick you out for cheating? There’s pressure but c’mon, think about it.
The proctors hand out the paperwork (“DO NOT TURN THEM OVER UNTIL TOLD TO BEGIN”) and then, just like that, we were told to begin.
As I said, you get three questions per set. Sources disagree on how to tackle them. Some suggested looking over all three, doing the easiest one first, then using that confidence to push through the hardest, then ending with the middle. I think that’s ridiculous. All the questions need to be answered, so who cares about the order? All you’re doing is wasting precious time looking at three questions at once, making some weird evaluations, and probably just creating confusion or dread about what’s actually going on.
Besides all that, the software is set up so that you write your answer on each computer “page,” clicking a right arrow to move on to the next question’s answer. The computer prevents you from typing when you’ve reached the character limit, hence moving to the next page was necessary. We were told that people had outright failed the bar by putting Essay 1 on Answer 2’s page, etc. This seemed like the worst outcome imaginable, and I was not having any of it. I took them in numerical order, every single time. I actually spent a minute at the end of each set making sure things were in the right place, although looking back at it, if I did screw up the order there would be nothing I could do about it.
The first set wasn’t so bad. The questions were similar to the practice stuff; no weird surprises. It felt like riding a bike. 2.25 hours later, we finished and I got up feeling ok with the process. We had a 30 minute break, and the people I spoke with seemed in good spirits too. 1/6 of the hard stuff down.
Incidentally, do not talk about the answers to the questions. What in the world good does it do you? Make you feel good that you answered like someone else did? You’re just setting someone, probably you, up for misery. There was a family law question in the second set that involved a co-habitating couple, i.e. they were living together but not married. They split up, who gets the stuff, blah blah. The fact they were unmarried was kind of subtle, it was more the absence of them being married than anything overt. I was happy to catch it, and I’m sure not everyone did. Am I going to go up to people and start talking about the unusual cohabitation question? Lord no, that’s just the beginning of an arms race. I ate a banana.
Things started to turn a little unusual in Set 2. Besides the family law question, there was a property question which I believe was the overall most difficult of the entire exam. There were other questions that had elements I was soft on, but this was the one I felt outright ignorant on. The wails of anguish around me implied everyone else seemed to feel the same.
I did have one incident here. I was typing away on my computer when the screen froze. I banged on the keys for a minute but nothing showed up on the screen. There was a beat and then all the characters appeared. And then the computer crashed.
Luckily the program has a built in auto-save feature and it did throw me back to where I was in the process, with only a minute or two’s worth of work lost. And who knows, maybe the second iteration was better. But watching the computer reset itself was something else.
We had an hour for lunch, and then the final set. Weirder and weirder questions were being thrown at us here, I remember one where a guy took out a bunch of securitized loans, then shipped some computers or whatever. Since we’re given copies of past exam questions I know in earlier years these would be their own essay, but here they were combined in one. I answered as best I could, but at the end of Day 1 I had no real sense of my scoring.
The end of Day 1 is interesting. The test generally has subjects it can test on, subjects it will test on, and subjects it will test on a lot. There is never an exact pattern, but for some subjects you can be sure if it wasn’t asked on Day 1, it will be on Day 2,. That means you can focus your studying on what you know will come, and ignore the rest. That’s valuable, but there are a couple problems.
Studying? Everyone was utterly exhausted after the intensity of the day, and I knew sleep would still be tough to get. The idea of doing more practice essays, even a curtailed version, made me cringe.
But I couldn’t let the opportunity to study the exact subjects tested on go, so I split the difference. I did some very cursory reading and only wrote on the paper, ignoring the computer completely. I also did not stay up late. I did get to sleep easier.
Day 2 was troubling. The questions were getting much harder and weirder, and whether it was exhaustion or difficulty, I was definitely feeling the strain.
This seems like a good point to jump in with, is the Washington Bar Exam difficult? Yes. How does it compare to other states? I don’t have a specific answer because it’s the only state’s exam I’ve taken. But the most recent test had a 64.7% pass rate (I don’t recall my year’s exact figures but it was mid-sixties). This article says Washington has the third-hardest bar exam on the country. Does that mean we have the third-smartest attorneys in the country?
The very worst point for me was on the very final set, on the second to last question. They hadn’t asked a constitutional law question yet, which was a guaranteed subject to test. The second to last question looked like a con law question, but further scrutiny showed it was actually an employment law question! This was a little insane, since employment law has never been tested on the Washington bar. I utterly, utterly guessed on this one. The employment portion was only a third of that question and the other parts felt better, but c’mon. Despite admonitions to be QUIET and not CURSE UNDER YOUR BREATH I heard a lot of angry mutters behind me when people hit that one.
The last question was the con law/administrative law one, not my best, but we were finished. The substantive law section of the bar exam was over. Time to drink a beer, collapse, and sleep for 14 hours.
Ha just kidding because the ethics portion was the next day. It was a short day, only one set instead of three, but I was sad I didn’t get to drinky sleepy. The subject matter was crystal clear. We would be tested on the Rules of Professional Conduct, done. Help yourself if you want to play along.
Again I was supposed to study and again I just did not have it in me. I was feeling relatively confident about this subject though. My graded essays came back positive, and the ethics course I took at school was taught very well by a sitting judge. And that professor tried to mimic the bar exam, what with time and character pressure, so I was certainly familiar with the conditions.
The final day started much the same. Eat, get to the seat, etc. The final set had, yet again, weird questions. We did our best, and while a little odd, the questions were manageable. I felt ok about it, at least compared to the 18 questions over the previous days, to which I had absolutely no clue. And then time was called, and everyone else cheered, and we shuffled out. Seattle University (go Hawks!) people were there to congratulate us, which was a nice touch.
I went back to my room, collected my things, and drove home. I stopped at Trophy Cupcakes for a reward-cake. The woman behind the counter said I looked gaunt. I told her what I had done the last three days, and she gave me one on the house. Nice people. Good cupcakes.
Having possibly never been as tired in my life as I was then, I collapsed in bed.
After the Test
One funny thing about the bar, and really there’s so many things that are funny about it, is the waiting. The first week after the exam you think about it. Then you stop because, what good does it do? Since there’s so many applicants, and again it must be graded by hand, it takes a while. For the test in July we weren’t to expect results until the second week of October. You try to spend the rest of the summer doing other things while your life is essentially on hold.
At the end of September we got a letter saying the exact date the results would be in, and then you remember, oh yeah, the bar.
I don’t know if this is still true but back then you wanted to get a thick letter in the mail. Thick meant congratulations and a bunch of info on licensing. Thin meant “too bad” and “here’s when your fee for the next bar exam is due.” Stinger.
On the day the letter was supposed to arrive I was far too nervous to stay still. My wife and I walked around. I checked the mailbox, a lot. I was vibrating with anticipation and finally, finally, the mailman arrived. My wife went to another room before I opened the mailbox.
The envelope was thick. I jumped up and down, very hard. I tore it open and the first word on the first page was “CONGRATULATIONS!” I let out a whoop, there was some celebrating, and later I opened a law office, continued to write the world’s best legal blog, etc.
Washington is moving to the Uniform Bar Exam next testing period, bringing it in line with most of the rest of the states. I don’t know exactly how the new exam will look but I expect it will still be some degree of stressful.
The bar is not what would I would call the healthiest experience someone can endure but it is a test of character and discipline. The citizens of Washington know if they need a lawyer for criminal defense, traffic tickets, or whatever, their attorney has gone through the flames to be qualified to represent them. To be sure, the citizens of this state deserve nothing less.
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