When I was in law school I remember my aunt, a trailblazing female lawyer who was born in 1948, telling me about her bar exam. She told me she took the New York subway to the exam location in the pre-dawn hours and sat on the steps outside the building waiting for it to open, just so that she could not be late. At the time, secure in my knowledge that my bar exam was years away, her caution seemed extreme. But she told me she wasn’t alone on those steps; she shared her silent vigil with a small group of would-be-lawyers who didn’t live close enough to be able to trust the subway.
About two years later, her approach didn’t seem so extreme to me. I carefully mapped the distance from my house to the bar exam location in Columbus, Ohio. I only lived 1.8 miles away, and I had a mostly-functioning car, but I plotted out which bus to take if my car broke down, and I left my house more than an hour before the exam so that if my car wouldn’t start and all the buses on my route unexpectedly stopped running, I could still have walked to the exam.
This year’s crop of bar examinees has had to take the exam in conditions no one could have predicted. The bar exam is held every year in most states on very particular, predictable days at the end of July and February. States don’t change the dates from year to year, although there is some variation between states regarding which days of the week the exam will be held. This year, the once-predictable bar exam was unpredictable. The boards of bar examiners in many states postponed the date once, from July to August or September, and then many changed it a second time in order to have a remote exam in October.
One person whose plans were upended by this date change was Brianna Hill, a test-taker who was due to give birth in mid-October. In a sans-pandemic summer, she would have taken the Illinois bar exam at the end of July. Instead, she ended up taking the bar exam two weeks before her due date and her water broke while she was in the middle of taking the exam. (You can read the full story here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/us/bar-exam-labor.html) It is remarkable and impressive that she was able to take the bar exam while in labor, and that she took the rest of the exam the next morning while still in the hospital after giving birth. I find her story inspiring.
While this particular situation is unique, it’s not the first unusual circumstance to arise during the bar exam. She’s not even the first person to go into labor during the exam. In 2011 another woman in Illinois took the bar exam while in active labor and then gave birth to her baby two hours later. She even passed the bar.
Even if Ms. Hill learns that she did not pass the bar, she will be in good company. Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Kamala Harris failed the bar exam once. This year, repeat takers faced even more hurdles as some were forced to wait until after first-time-takers to get seats to the exam.
We may think the bar examiners are infallible, but in addition to some largely publicized mistakes, including telling people in Georgia that they failed the exam when they should have passed, I found a wild anecdote in the ABA journal from 1988 reporting one bar examiner telling another that “10 is the high score and zero is the low score” while the other incredulously says “I’ve been doing it the other way around!” (you can find this one if you have access to HeinOnline).
Finally, in case the stress of waiting for results wasn’t bad enough, I used to work with a former prosecutor who told me of an annual tradition in her office. They’d wait until one week before the bar exam results were due to be released and then tell all of the test-takers in their office that the results had been released early that year, just to see how fast they’d all run to their computers and how disappointed they’d all be when they found out they’d been tricked. I’m sure it was hilarious but it was also cruel. If you took the bar exam this year, please don’t fall for this trick, and I hope you find out that you’ve passed.