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An aspiring attorney who has failed the licensure test four times challenges the state's limit, which gives him just one more try to pass.
Should Texas lower bar exam standard?
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
CLIFTON Eames moved to Houston with big plans. Having just finished law school in Washington, D.C., in 2002, he hoped to open a small practice here, specializing in civil rights and discrimination cases.
His dream of helping others right legal wrongs hit a snag, however, when he got the results from his Texas bar exam. Eames failed the test. Three subsequent attempts also have ended in failure, leaving him with a law school degree but no license to practice.
Now, Eames is in a quandary. The State Bar of Texas limits to five the number of times a would-be lawyer can take the bar exam. Worried he could find himself shut out from practicing law in Texas altogether, Eames has decided not to take the test again in February, the next time it is offered.
Instead, the 34-year-old, sounding like the attorney he wants to be, is making it his mission to get the Texas rule changed.
"It needs to be changed. It's not right," Eames said recently. "It has never been right, and it will never be right. There's no justification for it. I'm not going to stop until it's changed."
Texas is not the only state to limit the number of attempts to pass the bar exam.
According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, some states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, set the limit at two attempts.
Several larger states — including California, New York, Florida and Illinois — have no limit. Others have additional requirements for applicants who repeatedly fail.
Georgia, for example, has no limit on the number of times one can take the exam, but the state requires an applicant to sit out one exam and take remedial coursework after failing the test three times. Rhode Island's limit is five, regardless of whether the exam was taken in that state or any other.
The five-time limit has been in place for more than 20 years. Board records from the past 15 years indicate only 287 of 53,134 applicants who took the bar exam have been limited-out of future attempts.
A July 2004 bar study suggested that applicants who had jobs prior to taking the bar exam were less likely to pass than those who did not.
Julia Vaughan, executive director of the Texas Board of Law Examiners, said the rule offers the public protection.
"People should and do pass it within five times," Vaughan said. "It's not enough to go to law school; you have to demonstrate what you know and how to apply it. It's one tool we try to use to measure minimum competency."
About 3,800 people sign up to take the bar exam each year in Texas.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, authored a bill during this year's regular legislative session that would have eliminated the five-time rule. Eames testified in support of the bill.
Van de Putte argued that the rule would result in many applicants opting to leave Texas for states with looser or no limits on taking the bar exam. The rule also could hurt working students who may not have time to dedicate exclusively to studying for the test, she said.
"It just seems unfair to me to see Texas students being penalized," said Van de Putte, a pharmacist who says she passed her state licensing exam on the first try. "If every state had a limit, I'd say we need to keep these."
Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who said he passed the bar on the first attempt, said five tries gives an applicant more than enough opportunity to pass.
"If you can't pass the bar exam after the fifth time, you need to find something else to do with your life," Wentworth said. "We think that's sort of it. Five times is an extreme number of times to take it. It's a matter of professional competency."
Not everyone in the legal profession agrees.
"There's nothing magic about passing the bar exam," said James Alfini, president and dean of the South Texas College of Law. "I don't see the need for a policy that limits the number of times a person could take the bar exam. I would worry about other things it doesn't test."
If the issue is protecting the public, Alfini noted, there have been applicants who passed the bar exam but were denied admission because of character and fitness issues.
Though many would-be lawyers pass the exam on the first try, not everyone has enjoyed that success.
Recently, Kathleen M. Sullivan, a noted constitutional law scholar and recent dean of Stanford Law School, failed the notoriously difficult California exam. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson needed four attempts to pass.
Texas Board of Law Examiners statistics for the July 2005 bar exam show that the first-time passage rate for students from the nine Texas law schools was 83 percent: Of the 272 who took the test again in July, 170 failed again.
If the Supreme Court does not change the rule, Eames, who faces the debt of law school and has spent nearly $3,000 on a preparatory course after failing the bar exam the second time, said he will consider a lawsuit challenging the limit.
"No one is going to ask you, 'How many times did it take you to pass the bar exam,' " Eames said. "The ultimate goal is, 'Can you help me?' "