Try and Try Again : The California Bar Exam Has Prompted Divorces, Heart Attacks and,in Some Veterans, an Astonishing Persistence

Staff writer Cynthia Kadonaga will take the bar in 1987

They are regulars, and the California Bar is their rendezvous. After years of sharing misery, many love the company--or at least take comfort in the crowd that gathers at the Pasadena Convention Center.

The California State Bar examination, widely regarded as the nation’s most difficult state licensing exam for attorneys, is taken--and retaken--by more prospective lawyers than any other in the country. Because only about half of the 7,000 to 8,000 who take the twice-a-year exam pass, many keep returning to try again, sometimes for as long as a decade.

In a place where stress can break the line between anxiety and insanity, some band together in an effort to succeed. While most only survive, survival is the only success that counts.


“You see the same people every February and July. Even if you don’t know their names, you recognize them,” says 27-year-old Jeff Galen, who will receive his latest exam results this week. “It’s kind of like a reunion.”

Galen, Mike Farrell, Lynn Friedman and Sari Schumacher reunited for lunch outside the convention center at that exam, which they all were taking for the third time. Although they enjoyed the camaraderie, they’d prefer meeting elsewhere.

“I want to pass more than anything, so that I can get on with my life,” says Galen, who first took the test in July, 1984. “Everything is stagnant. There really is nowhere for me to go until I pass.”

Most fail. In July, 1984, barely 42% of the 7,352 who took it passed the exam’s 200 multiple-choice questions, 6 essays and 2 research problems. Of that 7,352, 2,498 were repeat test takers--only 367 of whom passed. There is no limit to the number of times the test may be taken.

“We’ve all become better friends because of the bar,” Galen says. “It’s nice that, even though no one else understands, your friends do.”

What they understand is the agony of wasted effort. After three to four years of law school and 12 hours a day of studying in the months before the test, they’re still not attorneys. The pain and pressure of that failure is reflected in the plastic bags holding the only items they take into the exam room at the Pasadena Convention Center. Amid pencils and pens are aspirin and earplugs, and Band-Aids for blisters formed after hours of writing.


White-knuckled, they clutch their bags and share horror stories.

In Pasadena last July, one applicant arrived five minutes late--and collapsed, crying, at the entrance. Another applicant spent hours in the exam room rocking in his seat and banging his head against his hands. There have been heart attacks during exams and, in one legendary incident, a would-be attorney stripped Continued

Continued and ran screaming from the room.

“You know, I was listening to these people talk about having taken the bar five or six times, and suddenly I didn’t feel so bad,” Schumacher, 30, says. “We’re babies compared to them.”

“Well, this is the last time for me!” Galen vows.

“Even if you don’t pass?” Schumacher asks.

Galen blanches.

“What am I going to say to the dean of my school if I see him at another cocktail party and still haven’t passed?” Farrell, 29, asks. “Did I tell you about that? I walked into this party, and he was standing by the bar. He turns to me and goes, ‘Farrell, why haven’t you passed yet?’ It was really embarrassing.”

“I don’t know what I can do differently to pass,” he adds, shoulders sagging.

“You shouldn’t eat roast beef,” says Schumacher, pointing at Farrell’s sandwich. “It’ll make you perform less well this afternoon.”

“Yeah, I’ll fall asleep,” says Farrell, taking another bite.

Everyone laughs.

For some, like Friedman, preparing for the exam has been a full-time job. After failing the first time, she studied for three months at a law library from 8 or 9 every morning until 6 or 7 at night, she says. “It was always in the back of my mind that I should study. I couldn’t let go.”

But no more. “I want to make plans.” Friedman, 35, says. “So, I’ve decided to get on with my life. If we want to have a family, we’re going to have a family. If I don’t pass this time, I won’t take it again in February.”


She pauses long enough to shift positions. “I’ll wait. Till next July.”

Like everyone else who took the latest exam, Friedman is anxiously awaiting the results. Rituals develop for getting the news. Galen, for instance, always rushes to the post office at 8 a.m. because he can’t wait till his mail is delivered in the afternoon. “I gotta know,” he says.

Galen will be at the post office Friday morning.