The Georgia Bar Exam: A Nightmare Come True

by Lisa McElroy

By now, you’ve probably heard about the debacle with the Georgia bar exam.

In case you’ve been on Mars for the past couple of days, though, let me fill you in.

The upshot: On Monday, the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners announced that there had been an error in scoring/reporting results for the July 2015 and February 2016 bar exams.  Ninety bar takers were told they had failed the exam when, in fact, they had passed. The Board of Bar Examiners explained that they made two different errors on the two exams that led to exams being incorrectly scored or scores being incorrectly reported.

What’s weird is that, while major news organizations picked up the story, no one seemed to comment on the implications of the error.

I’ve been teaching bar review for eighteen years, and I’ve worked for all of the major bar prep companies out there. I always tell my friends that no one in America is more stressed out than law school graduates who are studying for the bar exam. Truly. They’re nervous at the beginning of the summer or winter, they’re out of their minds by the middle of July or February, and they’re basket cases until they get their results. I have a high school senior who’s re-taking the ACT on Saturday, and she’s a study in calm compared to my bar students.

Most companies, including the one I teach for, tell students this: We can’t guarantee you’ll pass, but if you put the work in, the odds will be ever in your favor (majorly).

The test-takers don’t believe us. They have nightmares about failing. And those nightmares aren’t baseless. Because if they do in fact fail, there are major life consequences. Those consequences are what has caused me to lose sleep over the past couple of days as I've reflected on the error announced by the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners..

I think the situation with the Georgia bar exam is a nightmare come true for several key reasons. Three of them are consistent with what the law school critics hold up as the key problems with law school: employment, debt, and accurate reporting. The fourth is what law students often cite as the biggest problem with law school: the onset of anxiety and/or depression. Throw in the the ABA's proposed new accreditation requirements and the theory that the bar exam is unnecessary, and you've got a perfect storm of reasons why this error warranted much more coverage than it received.

Let’s start with employment. It’s no secret that it’s harder to get a legal job these days than it was a generation ago, when (gulp) I graduated from law school. Many employers, especially big law firms that make permanent job offers a year or more ahead of time, make jobs contingent upon passing the bar exam. Other employers, like government agencies or small firms, typically require proof of admission to the state bar before they will extend an offer. These ninety students were in a jam either way; if they’d already accepted an offer, they may well have lost the job when they learned (erroneously) that they didn’t pass. If they were still job hunting, they were likely to be unemployed – at least in a legal capacity – for another six months.

And how about debt? For students with federally guaranteed loans, payments kick in six months after graduation. Most new lawyers struggle to make the first payment or two, especially if they haven’t started working because they didn’t have bar results. But the false negative in this case would have led to some wannabe lawyers being unable to make a living – or at lest the kind of living they expected to make – for at least ten months after graduation. Not a good situation to be in. Not at all. And that’s a best case scenario, assuming they get a job right after their swearing in.

As for accurate reporting (the burr in the side of the law school critics), it would have been hampered, too, in two ways. First, these bar takers’ law schools would have reported inaccurate (and lower than actual) bar passage rates (and although a single instance of this kind of error is unlikely to have an effect, remember that the ABA is calling for schools to achieve higher bar passage rates to retain their accreditation).. As a professor at a small school, I know how a single student or two can skew the percentage of students who passed. Second, the employment statistics ten months out likely would have been wrong, too, as some of the affected bar takers probably lost their jobs and others were unable to get a job.

And then there’s anxiety and depression. We know that statistics show that about 40% of law students are depressed by the end of their third year of law school; lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than non-lawyers. Anxiety is in there, too, by the bucketload. And, as I said above, bar takers, especially just before and just after the bar exam, tend to be a complete mess. As a person with an anxiety disorder, I am acutely aware of what panic feels like. I know what it feels like to doubt myself and my abilities to the point of dysfunction. And all I can say is, I really feel for the ninety men and women who experienced what was, sure, a first-world problem, but a pretty devastating and life-altering one.  To their credit, the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners acknowledges the psychological effects of such a mistake (“[W]e recognize the distress that this mistake has caused you.”)

All of this when there’s a lot of skepticism out there right now about whether the bar exam is an effective or necessary step on the path to becoming a licensed attorney.

The error in Georgia? Yes, it's a nightmare come true: for law schools, for the bar examiners, for the ABA, for employers – and especially for ninety lawyers who really should have been told they were lawyers a heck of a lot sooner.