by Bailey White
Jacksonville Daily Record
It’s been 12 years, but Mike Rudolph still remembers the details leading up to the day he took the Florida Bar exam.
“I remember drinking more Mountain Dew during that time than I ever have in my life, just trying to stay awake,” he said. “I’d wake up, spend all day studying, take a break for dinner, go back to studying until 12:30 in the morning, then go to sleep just to wake up and do it all over again.”
Attorney Tom Townsend, who practices law with McGuire Woods, has similar memories.
“I studied all day,” he said. “You’re under a great deal of pressure; it feels like you’re whole career is in the balance.”
Rudolph’s exhaustive effort to pass the exam eventually took its toll.
“I got mono and ended up in the hospital,” said Rudolph, now an attorney with Harris, Guidi, Rosner & Mordecai, P.A. “I like to joke that the exam almost killed me.”
Their situations are not atypical. Most bar applicants will tell you that preparing for the three-part exam is the most stressful time in their lives.
“You can feel the stress in the room,” said Kathryn Ressel, executive director of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. “There are up 2,200 people taking the exam in July, and maybe 1,500 people in February. The room is large, and we seat applicants two to a table, away from their friends. It’s probably impossible to imagine what it feels like for a bar applicant.”
Ressel and her staff do their best to make sure the experience is as bearable as possible.
“I always caution my staff that this is an incredibly stressful event,” she said. “These people have gone through seven years of school, their reputations and future jobs are on the line and many of them have tremendous amounts of student loans.”
In her 30 years with the board, Ressel has had to handle everything from minor emergencies to crisis situations.
One year an applicant went into a seizure during the exam and Ressel had to call an ambulance. Since then, she’s employed a paramedic to be present for the duration of the test.
“The applicants need to know that we can get a situation like that under control as soon as possible,” said Ressel, “so it’s best that we’re prepared.”
There are some things, though, that are out of Ressel’s hands.
“Once, I had an applicant come marching up to the podium, and he was obviously very frustrated,” said Ressel. “He said to me, ‘You’ve got to make them stop that noise.’ Well, the noise was thunder, and I, of course, couldn’t do anything about it. I think the story illustrates the stress that some of these applicants are under.”
Ressel said an event like this is one reason why she prefers to test all bar applicants at the same time, in the same place, while some other states offer their bar exam in various cities.
Students may take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in March, August or November at various locations around the country, but the bulk of the exam, the General Bar Examination, is given over two days at the Tampa Convention Center.
On the first day, students take Part A, the Florida section of the exam, which consists of three essay questions and a multiple choice-section. Part B is the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) and is strictly multiple-choice.
“If everyone is going to be graded on the same scale, I prefer to keep the conditions uniform,” said Ressel. “Also, I think it takes a well-experienced staff to pull it off and I don’t want them spread out.
“We give it in Tampa for three reasons: its central location, it has a very large convention center and we have a long-term working relationships with the center and they give us really good support.”
Years ago the exam was administered in several cities, but “there was so much extra hassle,” said Ressel. “You had to train new staff and you were always trying to remember where you were.”
Ressel said the Tampa staff is aware of the strange and specific requests they have for the exam.
“They know that they can’t throw away trash during an exam, for one thing,” she said.
Ressel and her staff put a lot of work into ensuring security at the exam. Students arrive at 8 a.m., an hour before the exam begins, to sign in, get fingerprinted, and find their assigned seat.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners office is also highly secure. Visitors must sign in and travel with an escort. The board handles the printing of the exams from within its own office.
“I’ve learned of a lot from horror stories from my peers,” said Ressel. “I want to make sure that none of those issues plague us.”
The MBE is written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, but the Florida section is written at Ressel’s Tallahassee office. The board enlists a team of about 15 people, made up of lawyers and law professors, to contribute material to the exam.
“We’re always developing questions, but there are two cycles a year when we go through the process of actually selecting questions and printing,” said Ressel.
While Ressel and her staff are putting so much preparation into the exam, bar applicants are doing just as much.
Most law students rely on bar review courses such as BarBri, which both Rudolph and Townsend went through, to prepare them for the exam.
“Most of the time students sign up in their first year,” said Jamie Ledoux, a registrar with the Florida BarBri. “Our program is successful because we’re constantly talking to people and updating our material annually.”
The classes aren’t cheap — they run around $2,200.
Most of Florida’s law schools are going beyond just the traditional course load and offering courses specially designed to help students pass the exam.
“Basically, all three years of law school are in preparation for the bar exam,” said Noelle Melenson, a third-year law student at Florida State University, where the faculty emphasizes a liberal arts approach to the study of law.
“It goes beyond basic skills,” said David Morrill, a spokesperson for the Florida State College of Law. “This critical thinking approach really helps on the test. The dean and assistant dean go a step further in proactively seeking students who are performing at borderline levels. We want to make sure we can work with them so that they are amply prepared for the exam.”
Florida Coastal School of Law also offers special services to make sure their students are prepared.
“We talk to the students about the exam at orientation,” said Jennifer Sweezy, the school’s assistant dean for academic services, “but not to say, ‘The bar is out there, be afraid.’ It’s really to familiarize them with the test, which is the key to doing well.”
FCSL began by offering an optional weekend preparatory class for the exam, and now requires students to sign up for the course, which offers reviews for both the state and national exams.
“We used to focus on just the Florida section, but now we spend time on the multistate as well, which is one of the reasons we’ve had success.”
While the board doesn’t endorse any of the commercial review programs, it does produce its own study guide.
“We’re not tricking anyone,” said Ressel. “We want people to know what the questions look like ahead of time.”
Applicants are relieved when the exam is finally over, but it isn’t long before more panic sets in.
“You’d wait by the mail when you started to hear rumors about when results were coming back,” said Rudolph. “A thin envelope meant you passed, and a thick envelope meant you failed. I still remember opening that envelope.”
These days applicants wait by the computer, as Townsend did, to find out whether or not they passed the exam.
“There were three of us working in the office who had just taken the bar,” said Townsend. “Everyone in the office knew when we’d be getting our results back, and we were all very anxious.”
Applicants sign on to find out whether they passed or failed parts A and B, and whether or not their combined scores have made them eligible to be sworn in.
“At the end of the exam we tell them the anticipated date the scores will be available,” said Ressel. “It’s usually about six and a half weeks.”
Volunteers from the same board that writes the test offer their time to grade. They go through a training session for several days, and small teams sort through 300-500 papers in a month’s time.
“It’s always our goal to decrease the amount of waiting time, and we have decreased it,” said Ressel. “Electronic systems have definitely changed a lot since 1971.”
It might comfort applicants to know that Ressel is in their corner and that she suffers the same clammy hands and lumpy throats that they do.
“I always have bar exam nightmares,” said Ressel. “But I know we do a much better job if we move beyond our own issues and have compassion for the applicants.”