Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tuesday Morning in Downtown Brooklyn: Outside the New York State Bar Exam at the Marriott

Just as we could not get into the McCarren Park Pool on Sunday night to see MGMT, we were on the outside looking in this morning at the downtown Brooklyn Marriott as hordes of young people with green wristbands were inside having more fun. Well, actually, this group probably wasn't having fun because this their green wristbands entitled them not to drink Brooklyn Beer as they rocked out but to be one of the thousands taking the New York State Bar Examination to become attorneys.

And we were there not to get in, but to give moral support to one of the test-takers we were coaching this year. Today was the state part of New York's two-day exam; tomorrow is the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), 200 multiple-choice questions in six subjects given in 48 states. We help students with the latter part of the test, since our bar exam passage experience is limited to Florida and our expertise comes from our years as an academic support director at a law school in Fort Lauderdale. (In this 2003 issue of a newsletter for law students, we've got an article, "Conquering the Florida Bar Exam," on pages 12-16.) We tried hard to prevent our grads from failing, but some pretty successful people didn't do well on their first bar exam.

The bar exam is a pretty scary test and an ordeal for most who take it. In the early part of this decade, bar exam passage rates plunged in nearly every state, and so academic support professionals like ourselves and our colleague and friend Mark Padin, academic support director at Pace Law School, got involved in more intensive bar prep -- a full discussion of why law school grads need to take prep courses like BarBri would take up lots of space -- and eventually the passage rates started to rise again, even at so-called "fourth tier" (by U.S. Snooze & World Report standards) schools like the one where we worked. CUNY Law School, for example, is now doing exceptionally well.

Our own favorite story of bar exam prep came from believing the tales of horror passed on by those who had passed about what a nightmare the two-day test (three-day in California and a couple of other states) is this:

Our lecturer at PMBR, an MBE review class, convinced us to buy Depends because not only was the exam so time-pressured (the famous 1.3 minutes a multiple-choice question) but that the bathrooms would be so filled with vomit expelled by the panicky that we would not want to leave our seat.

In a test of the product before the test, we discovered that no matter how much we drank (we're teetotalers!), we couldn't go in our pants, even with that adult diaper. That's when we realized that Depends was made for people with true incontinence, not for those too busy to go to the bathroom. We went to the men's room twice during every three-hour exam session and it was a nice break (good place to sneak in an energy bar).

The Brooklyn Marriott is one of several sites in New York for the test, including the much larger Javits Center -- all Florida's bar examinees must go to the Tampa Convention Center; when students would ask me why the test wasn't given at more centrally-located Orlando, I'd say, "The state tourist board wants you to come back to Orlando!" -- but Brooklyn is only for those writing their essays by hand, not on a laptop.

Outside at 7:30 p.m. we saw people looking at highlighted pages of outlines, eating bananas, holding the clear bags that were required for all their stuff (just like for the liquids carried onto planes), chatting nervously. "You see anyone else here?" one person asked another -- presumably talking about fellow grads from their law school.

Inside, people started to line up outside the Marriott's second-floor grand ballroom, pretty much one abreast, supervised by men and women from the NYS Bar Examiners wearing gold nameplates. The line soon snaked around the second floor of the hotel, past the smaller Jackie Gleason and Roebling ballrooms and then the ones named after Jackie Robinson and Walt Whitman.

We tell people the day of the exam is not a time to look at notes or review and not to bring any books, but some test-takers felt the need. If you don't know it after three years of law school and two months of bar prep, you ain't gonna know it. We saw one young woman, wearing clothes more appropriate to late October than late July, sitting on the floor with what looked like half the library of the extensive collection of BarBri books. OMG.

The crowd was largely 25-30ish, maybe 75% or 80% white (diversity's still a problem in the legal profession), pretty much equally males and females. Most of the guys were wearing T-shirts and jeans, and the women were also informally dressed. We saw no neckties (absurd) and only one dress. Smart people held onto sweatshirts and jackets, as even huge test rooms can get really cold from the A/C.

In their plastic bags, we saw pencils, pens, erasers, energy bars, candy bars, potassium-laden bananas, aspirins, bagels, Coke cans, yellow highlighters, gum, boxes of raisins, tissues, sunglasses (?), and Pepto-Bismol. Many carried water bottles, with a few energy drinks there too.

People looked nervous, but not as nervous as you might think. No one was shaking although the bathrooms were doing brisk business. Some people had fixed, frozen smiles. There were some deer-in-the-headlights looks. Two women played with their neck chains. One guy kept clicking a ball-point pen. Another had a piece of paper in his mouth. "Did you move here?" one person said, catching sight of another. "No," she replied, "Brooklyn is better than Buffalo." Was that ever in dispute?

The most relaxed person we saw was a guy in sandals, one blue-jeaned pants leg rolled up beyond the knee, who had no plastic bag whatsoever and was reading the arts and leisure section of Sunday's Times. He scratched his beard absent-mindedly, looking as if he were on line not for the bar exam but for a slice at DiFara's pizzeria. This guy, we predict, will either ace the test or fail miserably.

As an academic support director in Florida, we met with people who failed the bar exam as many as six times. The odds are pretty slim that you will after the second try. Some of these folks in line now will be back here next February and a few will be here a year from now. Last July's New York pass rate was 79.1%.

By the ballroom promenade entrance, they start letting them go inside: "Have out your tickets and your ID." Most have been given their fluorescent green wristbands from an official peeling them off letter-paper-sized sheets. The line moves surprisingly fast, and by 8:10 a.m., with the test starting at 9:00 a.m., they're scurrying along.

Soon they start letting them in the ballroom -- or the promenade to it -- in two lines, and they don't appear to be checking the ID and tickets that rigorously.

We see people strolling in late, some frantic, some looking as if they didn't have a care in the world. One woman shows an expired passport and explains that she contacted the Bar Examiners and some document that was supposed to come never came. They tell her to go in, where they'll sort it out.

Peeking in to the grand ballroom, we see easels with five- or six-digit numbers, showing the range of numbers to sit in that area. It's a cavernous room, like the Tampa Convention Center we took the test in. When we started that Tuesday morning, opening our exam booklet (for the MBE, we tell people to use the trick we did: do the last ten questions first, so that when you later come to question 191 you're in for a delightful surprise), we soon had this realization: hey, this is just like another test, we'd been taking standardized tests since the Iowa test at P.S. 203.

By the time we got out of the Wednesday morning session, we were pretty confident that if we could avoid getting ptomaine poisoning at lunch, we'd pass.

When we got our score in the mail (we found out we passed online) that fall, it kind of annoyed us: if we had known we'd do that well, we wouldn't have studied so hard.

But no one really knows at this point, do one? A close friend of ours will be sitting in her Long Island home a few weeks from now, grading the essays written today.

Good luck to those taking the bar exams today and tomorrow, and our sympathies to their friends and loved ones who've had to put up with them lately. Thursday will be, for many, the most euphoric day they've experienced in years.

That's how it was for us. We just walked around downtown Tampa and took extraordinary pleasure in sitting for hours at a coffee bar, reading newspapers to see what had gone in the world since May. After leaving the Marriott, we cross Jay Street to get a drink at the NYU-Poly Starbucks and sit relaxing on a bench among the trees of MetroTech, hoping our friend inside taking the test remembered to breathe.

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