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The Florida Times-Union

July 22, 2008

Students feel burden of the Bar


The Times-Union

Students bursting into tears, gaining weight, losing sleep, throwing up.

When it's time for The Florida Bar exams, nothing surprises Odessa Alm, director of academic success at Florida Coastal School of Law.

If these law school graduates don't pass the test, they won't be lawyers. To say they have some stress would be an understatement, she said.

"This is the third or fourth one of these I've gone through in the last 10 weeks," she said, holding up an empty tissue box on her desk.

After three years of law school, thousands of dollars in test prep courses and fees and hundreds of hours studying, many students feel they are pinning their future on one test.

"You're taking a test for the rest of your life," said 25-year-old Anna Abbott. "I've spent 20 years in school leading up to this point. There's a whole lot riding on it for me."

About 3,500 students - 200 from Florida Coastal - will be taking the Bar exam on July 29 and 30 in Tampa. On average, one in four will fail.

For Florida Coastal, 85 percent of its students passed the Bar during the last test in February, the third-best rate in the state. Florida State University was first and the University of Florida second.

Alm attributes the high pass rate to several Bar review courses, including an Advanced Florida Bar Studies course that was started in 2006 and is offered during the last semester of law school.

Alm said she spends just as much time emotionally preparing students for the exam as she does reviewing the material.

During the next week, Alm said, she expects calls to pour in to her cell phone at all hours from students "crying, sick of it, giving up and yelling 'I don't care what my mom says!' " Every year, she said, exam stress leads to failed relationships and family problems.

The test itself is daunting: 12 hours of testing with 300 multiple-choice questions and several essay questions.

Most students wear ear plugs to block out the world during the test. It's not uncommon to see a student throw up or pass out during the exam.

Plus, many of the questions aren't taught in law school. Most law schools teach you how to think like a lawyer, Alm said, but they don't teach you the minutiae of every law.

Financial strain can add to the stress for many of those taking the test. Students have to worry about paying back college loans, and taking the test can be expensive. For most, the costs include $3,500 for test prep courses, $875 to apply for the test and about $500 for travel and three nights in a hotel.

Most test takers aren't employed and also have to worry about supporting a family.

"My husband told me I better pass so I can get a job and make some money," Abbott said. "If I don't pass, there are going to be a lot of bills coming due."

Alm said she had one student send her a text message that his power was shut off because he couldn't afford the bills. She said his text message read, "I'm broke. LOL."

Others have jobs waiting for them after graduation that hinge on passing the test.

For students who fail the test, Alm said, it's hard to build their motivation back up for the next attempt.

"They're terrified," she said. "The amount of disappointment they face from the first time is overwhelming. To face that fear again is tough."

Alm said she had one student who took the test five times before finally passing. At least he's in good company - Gov. Charlie Crist admitted he took the test twice before passing.

Not everyone passes Here are some well-known figures who admit to failing part of the bar exam at least once. ~~~U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton failed the Washington, D.C., Bar exam but passed in Arkansas. Kathleen Sullivan, a noted constitutional scholar, Stanford Law School professor and former dean, failed the test in California after 25 years of practicing law. John F. Kennedy Jr. took three tries to pass the test. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called it quits after failing the test four times. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley took the test twice before passing. Gov. Charlie Crist said he failed twice before finally passing.