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Their first trial: getting there

Law school grads taking the state bar exam face July convention crush

By Wendy Lee,

Boston Globe Correspondent  |  June 19, 2004

Taking the state bar exam is always nerve-racking for the 1,500 or so law school graduates who sign up for the two-day grind. But there's added pressure this year: Getting to the test on time.

This year's test is being offered on July 28 and 29, smack in the middle of the Democratic National Convention, at the World Trade Center in Boston and the Western New England College School of Law in Springfield. In addition to knowing the difference between a larceny and burglary, test takers in Boston will have to battle road closures, subway and commuter rail baggage inspections, convention crowds, and a lack of nearby hotel rooms.

Gerard O'Shea, a 2004 Cornell Law School graduate from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., started calling hotels in Boston nearly a year ago to book a room during the exam, but learned he couldn't do so that far in advance.

He tried calling months later, only to be told all the rooms were booked because of the convention. After pleading with hotel reservation clerks, O'Shea finally got a call back from the Best Western Terrace Inn in Brighton where there was a vacancy.

O'Shea said he has a job lined up for a law firm in New York, but wants to keep the option open of practicing law in Massachusetts to aid his New York firm. The bar exam ''is the biggest exam you are going to take, quite possibly in life," O'Shea said.

David Hoffman, also a recent Cornell Law graduate, is waiting to hear whether he can take the bar exam in Springfield. If not, he plans to sleep on a friend's couch in Cambridge. Hoffman tried calling dozens of hotels in August, including the Seaport Hotel, located across the street from the World Trade Center, without luck. He now plans to walk three or four miles to the testing center.

According to Elaine Vietri, executive director of the state's Board of Bar Examiners, which oversees the state's test, 30 to 40 percent of the applicants are from out of state.

Students living in Boston also fret about getting to the World Trade Center on time. Some said they chose the Boston site over Springfield because it felt more comfortable to take the test in a familiar environment, but they underestimated the traffic involved during the convention.

''It's adding another hassle to an already stressful experience. You kind of don't have time to have a life during this whole process," said Alexandra Deal, who graduated from Boston College Law School in May. ''I think that's probably why the location of the test seems so annoying because you don't want to deal with the details. You kind of want everything taken care of in a situation like this."

Deal said she plans to do a test-run with a friend the day before the exam from her apartment in Brookline, timing their trip to the testing center and seeing what conditions they may encounter.

Some law school graduates will rent dorm rooms at Harvard Law School, Lesley University, and Simmons College during the week of the exam. At Harvard, an exception was made for bar exam participants this year, said Marika Donders, housing and mail services officer. Dorm rooms are usually only open for summer rent to university-affiliated programs or to Harvard students taking the bar exam, she said. The dorm rooms are already booked for the summer, but some are available at the other schools.

The $815 Multistate Bar Exam is held on the last Wednesday in February and July. On the first day of the state bar exam, the six-hour test has 200 multiple-choice questions. The second day of the test students will have six hours to work through essay questions specific to Massachusetts law.

Students study for the exam as much as nine to 10 hours a day and often take a review course. Ryan Wardle, who graduated from Suffolk University Law School in May, started studying for the bar exam the day after he graduated, on average starting from 9:30 a.m. until he goes to sleep, taking breaks for meals and relaxation.

''Your brain starts going, it doesn't really stop going," Wardle said, adding he is trying not to worry about getting to the test. He plans to bike to the test center from Harvard Square in Cambridge.

This is not the first time a state bar exam has faced challenges from a nationwide event. In July 1996, the Georgia Bar Exam held in Atlanta coincided with the Summer Olympics. Because of the conflict, the test was moved to another location, north of the city, said Becky Allison, executive assistant to the director of the office of bar admissions in Atlanta. In Boston, no location other than the World Trade Center would accommodate the test takers and students with special needs, Vietri said.

Some actions are being taken to ease the situation, she said. Normally students who arrive after instructions are read are not allowed to take the exam. However, Vietri said the bar is considering allowing late students to go to a separate area to take the test, but giving them no extra time.

The bar exam normally starts at 8:30 a.m. but will begin one hour later on the first day of testing, in case test takers have problems getting to the World Trade Center, Vietri said. In addition, shuttles will transport students to the center from South Station, she said.

But for students like O'Shea, the Cornell graduate who obtained a hotel room, there are still reasons to worry. O'Shea said the Best Western may get noisy at night because of socializing during the Democratic National Convention.

''I better bring my headphones, fan, and ear plugs," he said with a laugh.