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Law Office Management

Mar. 2, 2015

California bar exam survivors tell how they made it through

Everything was on the line when Michael S. Schulze entered the Ontario Convention Center last July to take the California bar exam: He had a job offer contingent on passing, and he'd just learned his wife was pregnant.

Michael S. Schulze (photo by Vern Evans)
In the enormous hall, he found rows of test-takers packed in "like cattle" loudly clacking away on their laptops. Even more distressing sounds emanated from the bathrooms nearby. "You could actually hear people throwing up," he says.

Their worry turned out to be even more justified than usual: Of the 8,504 people who took the California bar exam last summer, most failed. The pass rate fell 7 percentage points from 2013, hitting 48.6 percent, its lowest point in nearly a decade, the Los Angeles Times reported. Most of the drop was attributed to low scores in the multistate portion of the test; pass rates in 20 other states also fell, by 5 percentage points on average. Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, sparked debate when she wrote in an October memo that the July 2014 test-takers were likely "less able" than those who sat for the bar exam the year before.

There was also a technical issue with ExamSoft that gave some test-takers nationwide an error page when they tried to submit their exam, leading to an hours-long delay.

California's bar exam, offered in July and February each year, takes a grueling 18 hours spread across three days. The first day includes essays in the morning and a performance test in the afternoon, the second is for the multistate exam, and the third repeats the first day's format.

Alyssa M. Staudinger (photo by Vern Evans)
For Alyssa M. Staudinger, cough drops defined the experience. Unlike Nevada, where she already had passed the exam and had gone on to work in the Las Vegas District Attorney's Office, California bans snacks from bar exam rooms. So she calmed her nerves by consuming drop after drop.

Staudinger says she actually was less nervous than when she took the Nevada exam. She prepared in the evenings after work and on weekends using Themis Bar Review.

"I knew what it was going to be like," she says. "I had already done it, and I'd survived it once."

Jahmy S. Graham went the Barbri route with extra test questions, averaging 10 to 12 hours a day of studying for two and a half months. On the last day of the bar exam, he finished with 30 minutes to spare.

Jahmy S. Graham (photo by Vern Evans)
"I felt an amazing sense of an accomplishment," he says.

When the results were posted just before Thanksgiving, Graham asked his wife to stay in another room before he logged in to check how he did. Just in case.

"I didn't want her to see the look of disappointment on my face," he says.

When the screen displayed the best news possible, he called her in. The two were so elated they popped a bottle of champagne and rolled around the floor with happiness. Now, he's an associate with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Los Angeles.

Schulze also passed-and got to start his gig as an associate at Kring & Chung in Irvine. And Staudinger is now a staff attorney at Jones Day in Irvine.

Staudinger's advice to those preparing to take the bar? Put in the hours studying, and take practice tests in the months leading up to the exam, but then ease off. She recommends a massage or other relaxing indulgence in the days before the exam, when no amount of cramming is likely to do much good.

"Studying for the last two months, you're not going to forget it all in two days," she says.

Schulze says he felt "at peace" when he found a rhythm during the exam itself.

"About an hour into the test, you realize you've been doing this for three years in law school," Schulze says. "If you've been studying, doing what you should do, your instincts kick in."

"Taking the bar is like riding a bike," he adds. "A bike that's on fire."

Riley Guerin

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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