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A High Bar for Lawyers

Today, 5,260 people begin taking the state licensing exam. More than half will fail. And keep failing. Just ask the mayor of Los Angeles.

February 21, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Barnett, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's law school, said the test "is easy to flunk because it is a difficult exam and requires even the best students of the best teachers to do some serious studying."

For those who fail, there is always another chance. Unlike some other states, California lets applicants retake the bar as often as they wish, one of the reasons cited for the state's relatively high failure rate. Someone who fails once is more likely to fail again.

The record for most attempts may be held by Maxcy Filer, 75, who took the exam 48 times. He estimates that he spent about $150,000 on bar preparation classes, motels and test fees from 1966 to 1991, when he finally passed. Filer now practices law in Compton and takes "anything that walks in the door except bankruptcy and probate."

The lawyer's hurdles are not over, however. Last year, Filer got into trouble with the bar for failing to file a required document in a legal case.

The bar placed him on probation and ordered him to take and pass a two-hour test on legal ethics and rules of professional conduct.

Filer is scheduled to take the exam next month.

"I am not worried," said Filer, who parked cars and worked as a law clerk while pursuing his dream of the law. "I will do my best."

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, a former California governor who is running for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, flunked the bar after "studying a little bit, not too much," following his graduation from Yale Law School.

The exam had questions about community property and wills and estates, subjects Brown had not studied at Yale, and did not reflect the psychiatry and law course that Brown said he took with the daughter of Sigmund Freud or the class in Roman law taught by a famous Oxford scholar.

"Yale was more of an intellectual exercise," said Brown, who passed the second time in 1965.

The bar is not necessarily a good measure of what it takes to be a great lawyer, he said.

"It is more of a rite of passage, a screen to discourage at least half the people," Brown said.

Former California Supreme Court Justice William P. Clark, who flunked out of law school, also had to repeat the bar test. After leaving the state's highest court, Clark served as secretary of the Interior and national security advisor to President Reagan.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson graduated from UC Berkeley's elite Boalt Hall School of Law but did not pass the bar until his fourth try. He blamed his struggle on slow penmanship. Wilson said he passed when he used a typewriter to complete the essays.

"It was frustrating as hell," Wilson said. "I don't think I would have passed it yet had I not been able to type it."

Some critics accuse the bar of deliberately trying to limit competition, a claim the group strongly denies.

California is more restrictive than most states about out-of-state lawyers practicing without first taking the state's exam. As a result, some states that do admit lawyers from elsewhere deny that privilege to California's lawyers.

The bar "would prefer to raise the fences around California at the price of not being able to practice in other states," said UC Berkeley's Barnett, adding that California has a "richer market" for lawyers than most states.

Harlan Antler, who failed the bar "nine or 10 times," is now a successful criminal-defense lawyer in Sacramento. He said he finally discovered that he had a sleep disorder that was making it difficult for him to stay awake. Once he addressed his medical condition, he passed.

But the many years Antler spent taking and retaking the exam took a toll on his family. He said his wife had begged him to give up. He refused.

"The most important quality of a good lawyer is never taking no for an answer," Antler said. "You just have to keep your eye on the bigger picture. If you want to practice law, you just keep slugging at it."

Times staff writer Hemmy So contributed to this report.



Tough testing

California had the lowest percentage of people passing the bar exam in 2004. Here are the states that had the greatest and smallest percentage of people passing the bar in 2004:

Top 5

1. Utah: 87%

2. Mississippi: 86%

3. Minnesota: 83%

4. Missouri: 81%

5. Iowa: 80%

Bottom 5

47. Wyoming: 60%

48. Nevada: 56%

48. New Hampshire: 56%

49. District of Columbia: 51%

50. California: 44%


Source: National Conference of Bar Examiners

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