The bar exam begins Tuesday. Both my sons are taking the two-day, 12 hour test remotely, because of COVID. My older son will take the New York state bar exam, my younger, the Illinois. This is the second generation of my being in proximity to the test: 34 years ago, I nervously hovered in the background while my wife-to-be took the bar. The memory is clear: we stayed at a hotel downtown, the Westin, as those taking the bar did, to be near to the examination site, and eliminate any risk of traffic tie-ups. The night before we wandered Rush Street, looking for a restaurant that appealed to her. At 1 a.m., after we had gone to sleep, workers started ripping up Michigan Avenue under our window. That was a surprise. We coped. At lunchtime, I hurried over to the hotel from work and ordered room service—cling peaches, cottage cheese and a baked potato, comfort food—so it would ready when she got there, and awaited her arrival. That moment of expectation is what lingers: the covered plate on a little cart, the silent room, gazing out the window at the street, waiting. After she returned to the exam, I went down to the front desk and demanded they change our room to one not facing the street. I also wrote this story.
For weeks, in some cases months, these would-be lawyers have hibernated with their lawbooks, shunning friends and family. They have enrolled in expensive cram courses, gnawed their fingernails, downed gallons of antacid and, above all, studied, studied, studied.
While much controversy surrounds the two-day, 12-hour, 216-question exam, most of it centering on whether the time-consuming exam should be given at all, there are two things that cannot be disputed: It is a grueling, difficult, maddening test, and you cannot practice law without passing it.
"I still have nightmares, awful memories. I don't even like to think about it," said Anne Burke, a Southwest Side attorney and wife of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).
"It's absolutely one of the worst experiences you can go through," said William H. Wise, an attorney and part-time law instructor at DePaul University. "If it was up to me, they would get rid of all the bar exams. The questions they ask are so obscure and minuscule, things that in my 22 years of practice have never come up."
How obscure? Past bar exams have asked questions about property law from 1670.
"That's what's so crazy about the bar exam," said Nisha Kumar, who is taking the bar on Tuesday, hoping to join the ranks of the approximately 40,000 lawyers practicing in Illinois. "They're testing us on law that no state has been following for decades, yet we have to know that to practice law in Illinois."
About 90 percent of the students taking the bar pay $795 for an intensive review course called BAR-BRI, designed to reacquaint them in seven weeks with the information it took three years of law school to learn.
"Think of how you would like to take a final examination on something you studied in school three years ago," said Richard J. Conviser, an Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who began BAR-BRI 20 years ago. "Nobody enjoys the experience - it's a lot of hard work under pressure."
The exam is given in February and July. It consists of two parts. The first, an essay section, asks 16 questions relating to Illinois law. The second, known as the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), is the same in 49 of the 50 states and asks 200 multiple-choice questions relating to nationally applicable law.
Just the act of responding to so many questions in so short a period of time makes taking the bar almost an act of physical endurance.
"By the second afternoon, I was so emotionally and physically exhausted it was an effort just to finish it," said Jo Ellen Bursinger, who took the exam in February. "Afterward, we went out to dinner, and I was so exhausted that I couldn't even eat or drink."
Despite elaborate preparation, some people are not able even to finish the test, never mind pass it.
"In the morning of the first day the room was filled," said Burke, who took the exam in 1983. "After the lunch break on the first day, some people were missing and never came back. The same thing happened every day. They just couldn't handle it."
Frank Morrissey, one of the five state bar examiners who write and oversee the test, said they often try to keep people from leaving.
"Sometimes we can talk them into going back in," he said. "I remember one young man—his wife had served him with divorce papers the morning of the exam. He walked out about 10:15 a.m., saying, `I just can't think.' I said, `What are you going to do for the next two days, just sit in your apartment? You've got this time set aside, why don't you reconsider and go back in?' The guy went back in and passed the bar exam."
To take the bar, a person needs to have done four things: graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (there are nine in Illinois), passed a brief morals test, paid a $150 fee (the entire bar exam procedure is funded solely by entry fees) and submitted five character references and three notarized affidavits attesting to his moral character.
There is a long wait to get test results back—as much as two months. The examiners are reluctant to discuss exactly how the passing cutoff point is determined, but in general 70 percent correct will earn a passing mark. Test scores are not released; the new lawyers simply are informed that they have passed, the others that they failed and must try again.
Although Illinois has one of the highest passage rates in the country, about 15 percent of the applicants who take the test fail. Those who fail can request an audience with an examiner, who will discuss their essay answers.
Everyone who has endured the bar exam has a tale to tell: the student who had a nervous breakdown and had to be taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital's emergency room for observation. The armless student who, two years ago, went in and took the exam with her feet, even though she could have requested a scribe.
Perhaps the greatest bar exam story of all is the famed Marsha Spak episode, which took place the second day of the exam in February, 1979.
It was noon. Having finished the morning session, Spak, a January graduate of Chicago-Kent, headed toward the Ritz-Carlton, where she had taken a room to rest during the two-hour break. Her husband, Michael Spak, saw her crossing the street from the hotel window.
"I had lunch ready for her," he said. "An $18 sandwich, sent up by room service. But I kept waiting and waiting."
Spak was kept waiting because his wife was trapped in the elevator, between the 12th and 13th floors, in complete darkness.
"I was all alone," she said. "My first thought was: I'm going to miss the exam. I was not at all concerned about falling or being killed, only that I was going to have to take the exam all over again."
The hotel manager refused to pry open the doors, fearing damage to the expensive wood finish. Half an hour passed. An hour passed.
After almost 1 1/2 hours, the elevator finally was unjammed, and with minutes to spare, Marsha Spak—too terrified to get back in the elevator—raced down 13 flights of stairs and back to the exam room. She arrived just as the test booklets were being handed out.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 26, 1987