April 25, 2017

The Bar Exam: Sometimes It’s Just About Grit and Vigor

An exam is not only a test of knowledge. It is often a test of a person’s will to prevail.

do not eliminate the bar exam

Years ago I used to practice the martial arts on a regular basis. I didn’t study at one of those schools that had a rainbow of colored belts. We had only four colors that were used to keep students motivated to continue their study.

After a number of years of rigorous practice I finally got my first degree black belt. I’ll never forget what my teacher said to me.

“Congratulations Vin. Now you can start learning the martial arts.”

The lesson was pretty clear. All the work I did to arrive at the level of first degree black belt was ultimately preparation for the work ahead: the real learning. In other words, the first degree black belt answered the question, “did I have what it took to continue?”

Professional Exams Don’t Test Knowledge. They Test Grit.

I remember preparing for and taking the CPA exam. It never ceased to amaze me how stupid parts of the exam were. For example, there was the need to memorize a standard audit report, comma perfect.

This is a colossal waste of time mainly because CPA’s who perform audits simply insert the right pre-written report into their audit papers when the job is done.

So why make us memorize the stupid thing? In fact, given that much of the exam itself has very little to do with the actual practice of accounting in the real world (the real world isn’t a multiple choice question), why make us take the test at all?

I always felt that it was a measure of the person taking the exam’s ability to enter a profession vs a measure of the person’s knowledge and expertise.

To me the CPA Exam tested my drive, my will and my determination to get through something even when I wasn’t in the mood to do so. Even when I thought it was not fair. Even when the purpose seemed meaningless.

The New York Times Room for Debate

Scanning the Twitter feed as I do on a daily basis, I stumbled onto this NYTimes Room for Debate, “Is the Bar too Low to Get Into Law School?”

“Bar exam scores have declined over the past few years, and last summer, graduates had some of the lowest scores in a decade. This years scores could be even worse. The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which creates and scores the multistate, multiple-choice portion of the exam, maintains that the quality of incoming law students has declined, while many law professors blame the bar exam itself.

Why are so many law students failing the bar exam?”

Indeed, why are so many law students failing the bar exam? More importantly, what should be done about it?

The Debaters

Deborah Jones Merritt essentially asserts that the low test scores are the result of:

  • weaker students being admitted to law school
  • a glitch in the testing system that incorrectly recorded actual test scores.
  • the N.C.B.E. added a 7th section to the test.

The third reason, the additional section of the test is where she focused most of her attention.

“The bar exam is a closed book test, and examines must memorize hundreds of legal rules for it, even though they consult cases and statutes as practicing lawyers. With an additional subject to memorize, graduates had less time to devote to each subject.”

When I read this I immediately thought of a number of articles I have read written by successful lawyers who contend that practicing the law isn’t easy. Forget about practicing the law. Life itself is not easy.

Looking back over the past 25 years of my life, if a new section of a test was the worst thing I needed to contend with, life would have gone a lot smoother both personally and professionally.

Additionally, and in my view, this answer completely misses the point of having theses exams in the first place. It assumes that a test can actually be designed to measure a lawyers readiness to practice law based on a level of expertise and knowledge. 

I would contend over and over again that the test is a measure of a person’s commitment to get past what ever needs to be gotten past in order to achieve a result.

Linda Sheryl Green offered a perspective that I can partially wrap my head around. In her view, it seems that because law schools are letting in less qualified students, the passing rates of the bar exam of dropped. 

She also offered this…

“It is imperative, however, that law schools not overreact to the bar exam decline by limiting access to legal education. Instead, let’s keep the door open and provide the support students need to succeed in law school and at the bar, as well as to serve the public in and outside of the legal profession.” 

I am sure some in the legal profession would not enjoy the notion that we lower the bar to entry into law schools. I am tempted to agree accept that I don’t view passing the exam as a measure of someone’s ability to actually be a good lawyer.

In fact, I am not of the mindset to conclude that academic excellence is a measure of anything other than a person’s ability to succeed in an academic environment. 

That said, what I like about her suggestion is that schools not quit on the exam, but that they work with students to get them over the hump in passing the exam. I like this notion because it doesn’t suggest anything other than the students and the schools putting their heads together, and down, to get the job done.

Jerome M. Organ weighs in and essentially says the same thing as Linda, but doesn’t suggest that law schools do much about it. To Jerome the problem is that law students these days are just not as bright as they used to be. This may be true, but at least Jerome isn’t suggesting getting rid of the bar exam all together.

Nicholas W. Allard  gives his opinion and to me, completely misses the point.

“No one who graduates from an A.B.A.-accredited law school with a strong G.P.A. should have to take the bar exam. The current exam is very expensive, and not a great measure of competence to actually practice law.” 

There is almost zero question in my mind that standardized tests are not a measure of talent. What Nicholas misses is that talent alone doesn’t make a great lawyer. To me, not only in law but in every profession, what makes a great professional is:

  • intelligence
  • talent
  • determination
  • grit
  • perseverance
  • never say die attitude
  • a capacity to do whatever it takes to serve the needs of clients

The Bar Exam, like any other exam, isn’t a measure of just one of these attributes. It is a measure of them all. Sure, maybe as he suggests the test could be revised, but eliminated all together for students who rank high in their class?

No. Never. Not even close.

I say you need to jump over the obstacle because life is going to throw far more challenging obstacles to jump over. Your great GPA has little to do with your capacity to jump.

Diane M. Downs is the only one, in my view, who get’s it right. 

“One way of looking at the declining number of law school applicants is to see a shrinking talent pool. Another way to view it is to see the remaining applicants as a group who have thought long and hard about their decision to go to law school and have demonstrated a strong commitment to practicing law.”

Yes, this is true. Those who rise above the rest are demonstrating a strong commitment to practicing law.

That my friend is the formula for success in no matter what you choose to do with your life. You have to have a strong commitment, and the guts to go the distance because frankly, you have no idea what kind of shit is going to be thrown your way as you progress through life.


I know I am not a lawyer so maybe I am not qualified to comment on this topic. I am however a licensed CPA who went through the rigors of passing a standardized test. As to what it takes to pass a test of this nature I can say, with certainty, it is a measure of ones ability to never give up no matter how hard it gets.

In order to pass these exams you have to:

  • overcome your fear of failure
  • put aside the desire for pleasure in the present moment
  • learn how to compete
  • learn how to learn even that which isn’t fun to learn
  • discipline yourself to a set of tasks to achieve a greater goal

To me, all of these things are exactly what you need to learn in order to succeed in life. These tests are not a test of knowledge or expertise. They are a test of your readiness to take on the challenge of becoming knowledgeable and expert enough to represent your profession and the clients you serve.

Leave your comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter comment.