Anxiety at high pitch for aspiring lawyers Lives on hold: Would-be attorneys ride emotional roller coaster while awaiting their bar exam scores.

November 07, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

The dreaded envelope is scheduled to arrive Saturday. Despite the distressing news it could contain, Dan Goldman can't wait.

"After all this time, I just want to know," Mr. Goldman said recently.

"I have never felt so excited, anxious, nervous, scared and mortified. It's a roller coaster of emotions."

The news that Mr. Goldman awaits is his score on the Maryland bar exam. With 1,589 other aspiring attorneys, he took the daunting, two-day test in July.

All that's at stake is Mr. Goldman's future as a lawyer. That may explain why he has become fixated on his test score, dreaming about it at surprising times.

"Twice in the past week, it has paralyzed me. I was shaving both times," said Mr. Goldman, last year's president of the day class at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Fortunately, I kept right on shaving."

Mr. Goldman's anxiety is common. Even the best students worry about their performance on the exam, noted for its tricky questions and maze-like fact patterns.

Those who pass will move ahead with legal careers, many as law clerks and junior associates.

But 30 percent to 40 percent of the test takers will flunk. They'll face the disappointment of delaying their legal careers. Many also will confront the sobering task of retaking the exam.

This week, stress levels are soaring. Exam results should be mailed out on Thursday by the test's graders, the State Board of Law Examiners. Mr. Goldman and others should be getting the news this weekend.

Until then, Missy Adams expects to be talking students off window ledges. As course director in Baltimore for Bar/Bri, a bar exam review course, she has made a career of massaging the pysches of panicked students. They call her ready to pour out their worries about jobs, spouses and student loans.

"The anxiety level has been increasing every year," Ms. Adams said.

"More and more are graduating with enormous debt. The job market is rotten now. Even students who are working cannot help but worry, 'Will I lose my job if I do not pass the bar?' "

Sometimes, fears are justified. But Ms. Adams said that students who have the best academic records in law school also can dissolve in worry. They are certain they have failed.

"There's no correlation between the academic and emotional aspects," she said. "One student, all through law school, was convinced she had failed every exam. She was convinced she failed the bar exam. She was one of those students who got an almost perfect score on everything."

For some, the nervousness steadily builds. After taking the exam, offered each year in July and February, test takers must wait months for their results. Grading is a fairly simple job for Part I, the so-called "multistate." That portion consists of 200 multiple-choice questions which are graded by computer.

Part II is an essay exam. The six to seven questions are written by the state's law examiners, Maryland lawyers appointed by the Court of Ap-peals. Examiners also grade the questions, reading the handwritten answers of all 1,590 applicants.

With 14 aides, the seven examiners require three months to plow through the essays, said Jonathan A. Azrael, chairman of the board of law examiners.

"I wouldn't call it fun. I would call it serious work," said Mr. Azrael, an examiner since 1985. "The people who take it know there needs to be a bar exam. Somebody has to be in charge. I think they generally feel the exam is fair, that it deals with the mainstream of law and that it's a necessary exercise."

Still, some applicants stumble again and again. "I know of people who have taken it 15 to 20 times, and not passed," Mr. Azrael said.

It costs $265 to take the bar exam the first time, $90 the second time.

Mr. Azrael also has read some truly memorable essays.

"Sometimes, people don't have a clue to a particular question," Mr. Azrael said. "They don't write anything or just a sentence.

"I recall one candidate who started out by saying, 'I don't know the answer to this question, but I'd like to tell you about the vacation my boyfriend and I took to France.' "

Law examiners make mistakes, too. Twelve years ago, Rusty Bergen tore open his envelope to find a congratulatory letter. Only the test scores weren't his. The examiners mistakenly had switched his grades with those of another test taker.

In a panic, Mr. Bergen raced home and phoned the student whose grades he'd received. "I said, 'Congratulations, you passed.' He said, 'So did you.' "

Debbie Krohn's story is every applicant's nightmare.

Three years ago, the law examiners notified her that she had flunked. Worse, the grade report showed that on two of the essays she'd scored zero.

The low scores raised the suspicions of Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana Levitz, for whom Ms. Krohn was law clerk. He helped her check the results.

It turned out that a mistake was made transcribing the grades, and that Ms. Krohn actually had passed the exam.

A bubbly, animated person, Ms. Krohn vividly recalled the letdown she felt at first.

"It was like I had a lobotomy. My asset became very flat," said Ms. Krohn, who now works at a Baltimore law firm. "I told people I had a joie de vivre-ectomy."

As he waits for his test scores, Mr. Goldman is feeling many of the same fears. Staying busy and keeping a sense of humor helps, he said.

But he added, wistfully: "The bottom line is there is absolutely nothing funny about this situation. It's not sitcom material."

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