An alumnus of Barry University, Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, Florida, with a passion for public interest law, discusses how the Florida Bar exam triggers competency doubts...
I graduated from law school in 2017, have taken the Florida Bar Exam four times, and did not pass each time. Just reading that one sentence about me, can you deduce that I do not have the technical nor minimal competence to become an attorney?
I am a 48-year-old, female Latina, chasing her lifelong dream of becoming an attorney. I was born and raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I am the only person in my immediate family (Mother, Father, and three siblings) who graduated from college.
At the age of 16, during my senior year in high school, unbeknownst to me, a brief visit to the job placement office at my high school would change my life forever. I was there to accompany my best friend who was searching for a job. Little did I know that one simple question asked by another student (“are you looking for a job?”) would result in my passion for justice and desire to be the voice for those who are silenced in so many ways.
That same day I was hired to work at a law firm specializing in different practice areas of law such as Contracts, Estate Planning, Divorces, and Personal Injury. It was at this firm, that I was embraced by the managing partner of the firm, his two sons and various other attorneys and who mentored me from dotting your i’s and cross your t’s to what’s important is most important is “what is within the four corners.” After nine years at this law firm, I walked out, with the blessings of the attorneys I worked with, a woman, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Legal Studies and a single mother of a two-year-old son. I wanted to go to law school desperately, but two things stopped me: Money and Motherhood.
From there, I began working as a paralegal for one of the top personal injury law firms in New York City and worked directly with the managing partner of the law firm. At this law firm, I was introduced to an area of law that I was not familiar with. My involvement in cases began at initial investigation and ended at trial or settlement. The attorneys I worked took me under their wings and added to the knowledge and experience I already had. The office was located a block away from The World Trade Center, I was there on the morning of 9/11. What I witnessed that day will forever be embedded in my mind. It was difficult for the law firm to rebuild to where it once was so the partners decided that it was best to dissolve the law firm. After eight and half years I, together with the managing partner of the firm, who several months later would pass away from cancer, said goodbye to that law firm for what would be the last time.
Next, came a position that would ignite my passion in a way that would push me to achieve my goal and chase my dream. My parents were low-income wage earners and the only apartment where they could afford the rent was in public housing which is where I also lived until the age of 24. So, when I became a housing paralegal for the Legal Aid Society of New York and began representing public housing tenants and section 8 tenants, facing terminations of tenancy, at administrative hearings, I understood all too well the struggles low-income individuals went through. It was at this law firm that my voice became the voice of those who did not know their rights, who felt defenseless against those in power, who because of their limited income could not afford to retain private attorneys. I worked under the direct supervision of the then Attorney in Charge, April Newbauer, now known as Judge Newbauer and the supervising manager. I sat in a room for a month training together with licensed attorneys, I was certified as a HUD counselor in the year of the mortgage subprime foreclosure pandemic. These two ladies mentored and molded me to zealously advocate for my clients not only at administrative hearings but also for our clients facing evictions and mortgage foreclosures and termination of public benefits. At Judge Newbauer’s swearing-in hearing, she turned to me and said, “Do you remember when you first started working here, I ran to become a Judge and lost?” I replied “yes.” She then said, “I never gave up hope, nor my dream, I was planning on running again, but, but unbeknownst to me Governor Andrew Cuomo was scrutinizing me from afar and here I am living my dream. Mia, you have been a great advocate, chase your dream, go to law school, and get that esquire.” That is exactly what I did; I took the steps to chase my dream!
In April 2013, I received an acceptance letter from a law school in Florida and was ready to say “yes!” when my mother suffered a stroke. My mother could not speak or move and the only thing I knew at that time was that I could not leave her side, I had to remain in New York and take care of her. On Mother’s Day, a friend, who after serving 17 years in federal prison, was also set to begin law school, asked my mother if she knew that I had decided to give up on my dream. With the little strength she had, she placed her hand on her heart and said “go, break heart.” That was all I needed and on July 1, 2013, I said goodbye to New York City, to The Legal Aid Society, packed my bags, and took a giant leap of faith.
Immediately upon my arrival, I began looking for a job to work in a law firm, but not just a law firm, a public interest law firm. I wanted to continue to be the voice for those who did not know their legal rights, who could not afford to hire a private attorney and who deserved justice. Lucky for me, I landed a position working for legal services, and for the next four years, I worked during the day and attended law classes at night. In the last seven years, I have worked in the Housing unit, Veteran’s unit, and Foreclosure Unit. After graduation, I submitted a Consumer Law project to Equal Justice Works and was selected to become a fellow. During my fellowship and for the last two years, I have been working under the supervision of a seasoned consumer law attorney, who together with the trainings, has provided me the education and experience in debt defense, and unfair debt collection practices.
After failing the FL bar exam, for the fourth time, I became a Florida Registered Paralegal in order to continue to work in the same capacity in the Consumer Law Unit at legal services.
I was scheduled to take the FL bar exam for the fifth time in July. I paid for a tutor, I paid for an online bar prep course, and then the exam was postponed to August 19th. On July 7, 2020, I began to have COVID 19 symptoms and tested positive. I experienced every symptom except for difficulty breathing. However, my husband, a disabled Army Veteran, was hospitalized on July 20, 2020 due to COVID-19 and pneumonia. He was in the hospital for 10 days, received supplemental oxygen and plasma. My husband was hospitalized, quarantined away from our 16-year-old daughter who suffers from epilepsy, my father (a cancer survivor), and my mother (a stroke survivor). From July 7th to August 10th, I did not give up studying for the exam. I pushed through despite being ill, I pushed through despite the despair of my husband being in a hospital alone fighting to live, I pushed through the mental and emotional anguish I had due to not being able to hug my daughter, my parents. I pushed through the tears and reminded myself over and over that I could not give up when I was so close to making my dream come true.
Here I am 32 years later, with a Juris Doctor law degree, having received notice that the FL bar exam has been postponed to an undetermined date in October 2020, asking myself, “Have the attorneys who have supervised me, mentored me, and encouraged me to chase my dream been lying to me? Are the Florida Board of Bar Examiners right, do I not have the “technical competence” or “minimal competence” to become a licensed attorney, to be able to zealously advocate on behalf of others because I cannot pass this exam?” “How can I be so close, yet so far from making my dream come true all because I cannot pass the Florida Bar Exam?”
JURIST carries extended coverage of Bars Exams in the Pandemic.
The author is an alumnus of Barry University, Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law, with a passion for public interest law.
Suggested citation: Alumnus of Barry University, The Florida Bar Exam: So Close, Yet So Far, JURIST – Professional Commentary, August 21, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/08/so-close-yet-so-far-bar-exam/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com.
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