It’s another fine day to abolish the bar exam.

Now is another of the various times of year throughout the nation when law school graduates finish waiting anxiously for bar results and find out whether they passed and get the opportunity to start digging their way out of the debt they amassed in law school or failed and, thus, have to wrestle with the “sunk cost” fallacy and decide whether to amass some more debt to take another shot at passing the exam.

I’ve written a little bit before about how I’ve come to conclude that the bar exam needs to be abolished. I have admittedly not always felt this way but have come to the position over time and (I happen to think) because of growth and a better appreciation for the fact that it is a test that does not measure in any meaningful respect whether the examinee has the skills to be a competent attorney.

That was true even before the pandemic and the “pivot” from in-person exams to online undertakings but has become even more undeniable over these last 18 months.

Very, very little of the work of an attorney involves memorizing things and knowing answers off the top of one’s head. Success during a law school career spread out over three years is a much more reliable indicator of whether someone should be issued a law license. Now that states have had to partner up with software companies to administer the bar exam remotely — an opportunity that could have been used as a perfect vehicle for shifting what is tested to an open-book format that might better test the skills that an actual lawyer would have to use going forward has instead become a test of resources and sometimes just endurance.

Over the pandemic there have been a variety of news articles about the plight endured by folks taking the bar exam online. To the extent those stories ever mentioned litigation it involved efforts before an exam occurred to try to stop it from happening under certain terms and conditions or various kinds of petitions under state procedures to try to convince courts to grant a diploma privilege in lieu of requiring the exam take place.

What you do not hear a lot about is any efforts to sue by someone who fails the bar exam to seek a court ruling that they should be considered to have passed instead. There is a very good reason for that. Most states strictly circumscribe the grounds upon which the outcome of the grading of a bar exam can be challenged.

As an example, here in Tennessee, Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 7 takes great pains in explaining the various mechanisms for seeking to have the Tennessee Supreme Court review actions of our Board of Law Examiners that are believed to have aggrieved someone seeking their license to make clear that the decision about whether you obtained a passing score is not reviewable.

Sec. 13.02. Petitions to Board.

(a) Any person who is aggrieved by any action of the Board involving or arising from the enforcement of this Rule, other than failure to pass the bar examination or a determination that an applicant has not completed the application process for an examination, may petition the Board for such relief as is within the jurisdiction of the Board to grant.

(emphasis added)

ARTICLE XIV. REVIEW OF BOARD DECISIONS

Sec. 14.01. Petition for Review.

Any person aggrieved by any action of the Board may petition the Supreme Court for a review thereof as under the common law writ of certiorari, unless otherwise expressly precluded from doing so under this Rule. 

Sec. 14.04. No Review of Failure to Pass Bar Examination.

The only remedy afforded for a grievance for failure to pass the bar examination shall be the right to re-examination as herein provided.

Now, at a surface level, this makes perfect sense because absent such a restriction you could foresee graduates seeking a redo of a subjective process – grading – in court. But, given the kinds of technological failures that are coming to light from the less-than-ideal approaches being taken to online examinations and approaches to remote proctoring when the exam is administered online, the notion that asking courts to step-in and change unfair failing grades to passing grades is verboten seems worthy of some reconsideration.

And with all of that as a pretty lengthy prologue, that brings me around to what prompted these thoughts today — this story about a graduate who missed a passing score on the remote bar exam by 5 points and has filed a petition in Arizona seeking a law license because, while he was taking the exam, the software crashed, costing him the time it took to reboot his computer and that caused him to have to redo the portion of an answer he was working on. Importantly, the graduate’s score on the portion of the exam being worked on at the time of the crash was significantly lower than the score obtained on the other portions.

This kind of lawsuit can potentially be filed in any state – even in the face of a Court’s own rules seeking to handcuff itself – in reliance upon the inherent authority that the highest court of any jurisdiction has to determine who should, or should not, receive a law license. But interestingly in Arizona at least, the relevant rule appears to provide some wiggle room for directly challenging whether a passing grade was obtained.

As the Petition itself explains, Arizona Sup. Ct. R. 35(d) provides that “the Committee on Examination’s decision regarding any applicant’s grade score is final and will not be reviewed by the Court absent extraordinary circumstances.”

Hopefully, before there become enough instances of this type of outcome becoming “ordinary” circumstances, this applicant’s challenge will be successful and other jurisdictions will thoughtfully tackle the entire question of what purpose does the bar exam actually serve.