The price of admission
By Larry Ostrovsky
President, Board of Governors
The results from the July bar exam will be out at the end of October. Of course, most of you who are reading this article have long ago sublimated the memory of that traumatic event. Nonetheless, I think it's worthwhile to bring bar members up to date on the current state of the bar exam and admissions.
A lot of things haven't changed since I took the bar exam 20 years ago. It's still a two and a half day exam, consisting of nine essay questions, the Multistate exam and two longer, memo type, questions. People had philosophical issues about the exam then, and they still do. Among them are, since it's available only to graduates of accredited law schools and graduates of unaccredited schools who have practiced five years, is the exam even necessary, and, of course, does the exam really test professional competence. It seems to me that those are still valid questions. But, like Alaska, virtually all states still require attorneys to take a bar exam.
The recent pass rates in Alaska have varied from 51% to 76%. This is roughly in line with the national average, which, in 2002, had a pass rate of 57%. Both nationally and in Alaska, the pass rates tend to be slightly higher for first time exam takers. The number of applicants in Alaska has hovered in the fifties and sixties for a number of years, although 86 applicants took the most recent exam. The greater number of applicants is perhaps a function of slower economic growth down south, or word is getting out about our recent mild winters.
Much of the exam is written and graded by our colleagues who have volunteered for the law examiners committee. Both the writing and grading are rigorous processes that have built-in quality and calibration checks.
The exam questions go through peer review before they are selected for inclusion in the exam. On the grading side, a calibration team reads 10 actual exams and selects "benchmark" answers. During calibration, the graders come to agreement on what constitutes good answers, poor answers, and those in between.
Once the benchmarks have been established, two graders each take half of the essays for a particular question and, using a grader's guide and benchmarks, grade the essays. The graders then switch and grade the other half. If the two graders are more than one point apart on any exam, they meet and reconcile their scores. Usually about 6 – 8 exams per essay question must be reconciled. The essay scores are then combined with the Multistate exam scores. The examiners committee re-reads the essays of any applicants who come within one point of passing.
The good news is that, once lawyers have successfully run the exam gauntlet and practiced for a number of years, they are eligible for licensing reciprocity in 29 states. This includes, in recent years, Washington state. (The complete list is on the Bar's web page, at www.alaskabar.org.) Alaska, in turn, gets about 15 – 20 reciprocity applicants each year. As the country becomes a seamless web of communication and commerce, lawyers have raised the issue of national licensing, which would allow lawyers to practice freely in every state.
Recently the Bar allowed applicants to take the bar exam on their laptop computers. Although only 17 people used their laptops in the July exam, this is a program that is expected to grow to the point where the vast majority, if not all, of the examinees will use their own computers. Although I'm nostalgic for pencils and the examiners' committee is undoubtedly nostalgic for bad handwriting, the electronic exam should make future bar exams more efficient to administer.
There are 3,582 members of the Alaska Bar, admitted as a result of passing the bar exam or through reciprocity. In a few weeks, that number will hopefully increase as we welcome the successful applicants from the July 2003 bar exam.