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This Test Taker Raised the Bar for Perseverance

He got his law degree in 1966, but it took Maxcy Filer 25 years to pass the bar exam. He is an inspiration to a young woman awaiting results.

By Christiana Sciaudone
L.A. Times Staff Writer

May 21, 2004

At 6 p.m. today, 5,000 would-be lawyers will log on to the Internet to find out whether or not they passed the bar exam, the key to a license to practice law in California.

Those who don't might take a measure of comfort from one man's story.

It took Maxcy Filer 25 years and 47 tries before he passed. So don't give up yet, he advises.

"Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance," said Filer, who has been practicing law since he passed the bar in 1991 at age 60. "I was going to take it until the last inch of my breath."

Filer, now 73, probably does not hold the record for most attempts at the exam, according to the State Bar of California, but it does not keep such statistics.

The California bar exam is given in February and July. Nearly 50% of the 8,140 people who took the exam in July passed. First timers generally had a better chance: 63% passed, compared with 19% of repeaters, according to the state bar.

"I always looked at taking the bar like it was the first time," Filer said. It kept him fresh, he said. Resolve helped, too. Twenty-five years is a generation, after all.

In 2002, the percentage of California test takers who passed 45% was lower than in any other state, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. New York, with nearly 1,300 more applicants than California, had a pass rate of 61%.

Kareen Akry, 24, of Costa Mesa graduated from Whittier Law School in December and was one of 4,739 people who took the exam in February. She said she took two bar review courses, which cost about $3,600, and studied every day for two months straight.

The test "crosses my mind at least five times a day," Akry said. She said that she was still looking for a job, but that potential employers needed to know she had passed and could practice law.

Like many, Akry wrote her answers to the three-day exam by hand. A state bar representative said nearly 50% of test takers in July are expected to use a laptop. A handful of people still use a typewriter; state officials said results show they don't generally do as well as other test takers.

The cost to take the exam is about $1,000 for first timers, according to the state bar. Part of that covers an investigation to determine moral character, which costs $363 and is valid for two years. For those who failed the February exam and want to retake it, the cost for the July exam is no more than $700, according to the state bar.

Although Filer said he didn't recall how much he had paid to take the exam over the years, he said it was at least tens of thousands of dollars.

Until he could practice in court, Filer said, he clerked in law offices, including 10 years working for his son, Kelvin Filer, now a Compton judge.

"I could do everything except go to court," Filer said. When he first took the exam, he said, two of his sons were in elementary school. By the time he passed, Filer said, the two were established attorneys.

Filer said he got his law degree in 1966. He traveled from Pomona to San Diego to Riverside over the years to take the exam. He would check into a motel on a Friday for the test, which would begin on a Tuesday.

Filer said he tried not to let the repeated notices of failure get to him. "I couldn't let it hold me back," he said.

Newspaper clippings framed on his Compton office walls show Filer marching on Washington and standing in picket lines in the 1960s. He said he wanted to become a lawyer because "it appeared to me that the lawyers were the ones really making the progress" in the civil rights movement. He said he was inspired by Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP attorney argued for integration of schools in Brown vs. Board of Education, and later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Filer said that he grew up in a segregated Arkansas, and that in Los Angeles he was denied jobs because he was black.

"I wanted to help my people," Filer said. "That was the whole idea behind the law."

Filer, who was a Compton city councilman for about 15 years, was declared "Mr. Compton" by the city when he passed the exam, he said.

He also joined his son Kelvin's law firm as a partner for about five years. Now Maxcy Filer works alone and says he is happy to do so. For one thing, he doesn't have to wear shoes.

Wearing white socks, he padded around his office recently, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, in black velour Lakers pants and a white T-shirt. Awards, photos and degrees on his walls seemed tilted to one side, as if the room were on a ship.

The day the golden letter came after his 48th test in 1991, Filer said he knew. "I could feel it in my bones."

His son, Anthony, held the state bar envelope to the light and read "for successful applicants," Filer said.

"He tore it open hurriedly," Filer said. " 'Daddy passed the bar!' he started shouting. The house was just lit up after that."

Filer said he charges clients $45 a visit, far below the average for Los Angeles lawyers, and encourages them to call any time. Most of his business comes from word of mouth, he said.

Filer answers his own phone, an old beige one. "Law office, may I help you?" he asks.

Akry said she was impressed by Filer's commitment.

"I call that dedication," Akry said. "He's a lawyer who deserves to be one. I have to admire somebody who could spend so many years taking a test and not passing and still want to do it."

Akry said she has spent $90,000 and 2 1/2 years in law school. If she fails the exam, she will take it again just like Filer, as many times as necessary.

"I don't want to waste all that education," Akry said.