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The Bar(rier) Exam: Privilege, Mental Health, and the UBE
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The Bar(rier) Exam: Privilege, Mental Health, and the UBE

The Uniform Bar Examination is always given on the last Tuesday and Wednesday in July, even, it turns out, in the midst of a pandemic.

On July 27, the date of the bar exam, 1,126 lives were lost to COVID-19. Despite this, today almost 200 future lawyers — myself included — sat in-person for the first half of Iowa’s administration of the two-day bar exam. Thousands of other law graduates did the same across the 15 states that refused to move online, postpone the exam, offer alternative dates, or institute diploma privileges.

If risking your life to pass an exam does not seem absurd enough, consider that the bar exam is merely the purported last obstacle in a legal steeplechase that never truly ends.

Obtaining the right to take the Bar Exam is a financially cataclysmic and exhausting event in itself. Like most graduate school students, my University of Virginia law degree cost me more than a moderately sized house. With my degree, I could apply to take the bar exam, but this was only one of the many requirements for entry.

The financial path to the bar can sound like a MasterCard advertisement:

  • Bar Exam: $800
  • Bar Exam Prep Course: $860 (a steal, because I got the public service discount)
  • The right to type essays on the exam, rather than hand write them: $122
  • Law School: $230,000+
  • The privilege of being able to afford these things: Priceless

Of the 1.3 million lawyers in the United States in 2015, 75% worked in private law firms, where the average lawyer’s salary is upwards of $120,000 annually. For these privileged businesspeople, the foregoing numbers are simply a rational investment. For some of us, however, the bar can be insurmountable.

And it’s not just about the money.

Paying for the bar exam is just one of a series of hurdles one might be asked to clear. To prove my character and fitness, I submitted 49 pages of paperwork, three letters of reference, and a detailed description of every address and job I have held since the age of 18.

On page 22, the Iowa bar application requested that applicants list every judicial or administrative proceeding to which they have been a party. I disclosed an “Emergency Hospitalization Order Pursuant to 229.22(2) and (3)” from November 21, 2017.

On November 20, 2017, I attempted suicide by antidepressant overdose. My parents took me to the hospital, and I was put on a seizure watch. The next day, the hospital sent a psychologist to evaluate me, and I refused to speak to him. He recommended I be committed to the care of a hospital in Des Moines, and a magistrate signed the order. It was my third hospitalization for depression with suicidal ideations. The only difference was the first two times I signed the paperwork myself.

On June 2, 2020, the Iowa Board of Law Examiners held a hearing to evaluate my fitness to sit for the July bar exam. I provided letters from two psychologists confirming my current mental health. I described my mental health history to them in more detail than one ever should. I recounted my treatment regimen in detail and promised to continue taking antidepressants and seeing a psychologist. I laid myself bare before six strangers and an acquaintance.

Six days later, I received an email confirming that yes, I would be permitted to take that exam for which I had studied, paid, and emotionally flagellated myself.

My story is emblematic of a larger problem. One of discrimination on the basis of finances and mental health, and the misconceptions therein. But it’s also more than that.

COVID-19 is shedding light on inequity, including a small movement to enact diploma privileges for bar entry in lieu of the bar exam. Unfortunately, we in the legal profession are insulated from change by our own privilege. Those of us who would advocate for the rights of others are limiting our own rights for fear of retaliation from the powerful institution we seek to join. Maybe it is time instead to reflect and change so that the legal profession can truly be a vehicle of justice instead of a bar to it.

On the morning of day two of the exam, I woke up unable to concentrate on my exam for worrying about the possible response to this piece. I wondered whether some might read it and condemn me for belittling a sacred tradition. Worse, I feared some might read about my mental health and conclude that I am in fact unfit to be a lawyer. To those people, I offer the following: 1. Like the 18% of examinees on average each year, I may have failed the bar exam. 2. It’s not about me. For everyone who was lucky enough to take the bar exam, there may be ten others who were denied due to a criminal conviction, psychiatric disorder, academic violation, or anything else. There are assuredly thousands of others who, for whatever reason, simply never made it this far. Of those thousands of people, are we truly willing to believe that only the people who passed the bar exam are good enough to be lawyers? 3. It is very hard to commit fraud on the bar. Before we could take the multiple-choice exam, the National Council of Bar Examiners requires all examinees to provide a handwriting sample. If anyone doubts my identity, they may refer to the back of my MBE scantron form. Like every other examinee’s form, it reads “Old ways won’t open new doors.”

 

Kavya Parsa, J.D. will be clerking beginning August 3rd. She has been interning in the legal field since 2016. She is a former Law Intern for the Southern District of Iowa, Americorps Legal Intern at Iowa Legal Aid, Extern at Al Otro Lado, Intern at Iowa Attorney General’s Office, and Extern at Animal Welfare Institute. She holds a J.D. from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in Literary Studies from Beloit College.

Maya Furukawa, M.S. is a middle school English teacher at a private school for students with language-based learning differences. She is the former Managing Editor of the Beloit Fiction Journal and has a short story forthcoming in The Bangalore Review. She holds an MS in Secondary Education from Johns Hopkins University and a double-BA in Creative Writing and Literary Studies from Beloit College.

 

Suggested citation: Kavya Parsa and Maya Furukawa, The Bar(rier) Exam: Privilege, Mental Health, and the UBE, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 31, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/parsa-furukawa-bar-exam-mental-health/.


This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org


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