Bar ExamStudents taking the bar exam in 2002. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

The rumor mill about bar exam horrors chugged steadily in June and July as thousands of recent law school graduates prepared for the grueling New York State Bar Examination.

Today and Wednesday, test takers will sit for hours, proving their grasp of the intricacies of the law — from criminal codes to contracts. Some hope they won’t have to sit next to lip smackers or overzealous scribblers, others hope that their health will hold up.

Many will be praying that their computers will not have a meltdown.

“There’s no guarantee when it comes to technology,” said John McAlary, the executive director of the New York State Board of Law Examiners. “There’s always a risk that something can go wrong.” 

The New York board has allowed candidates to complete the essay portions of the bar exam on their laptops since February 2003. Last summer was the first time anyone who wanted to use a laptop could; before that, laptop spaces were allocated on a lottery system.

For all the stories of students having anxiety attacks in the exam room, there seems to be a competing number about their computers crashing and the specialized exam software going awry. To account for technology’s fallibilities, the exam board issued a policy for students who opted to use their laptops. (Multiple choice questions are still done on pencil and paper.) The policy, not exactly intended to soothe, includes a list of system requirements, warnings, and disclaimers, like this one:

Technical difficulties may include hardware or software malfunctions, data saving or retrieval problems, operator errors, upload or download problems, or the loss of electrical power at the examination facility. In the event any technical difficulties occur during the bar examination, you must handwrite your essay answers in the answer books provided and no additional time may be allowed. If you choose to continue to use your computer to write your essay answers after experiencing technical difficulties, or when you have been instructed not to do so, you do so at your own risk.

For Mac users with bad handwriting, there is no keyboarding option. The exam software is designed to run on Windows systems, and the New York board included this clause in its laptop policy:


Last summer, panic spread through various testing sites when the exam software – which locks down all programs and files except the exam – malfunctioned. Hundreds of laptop users who navigated back to a previously completed essay found a blank screen. In the months following the exam, Mr. McAlary said, the board salvaged all but 47 essays. Some of those candidates passed or failed regardless of their score on the lost essay, leaving only 15 that were given an estimated score. Nine of them passed the bar, six didn’t.

The board switched to a different software vendor for the February exam, but some candidates remain wary. This summer, only half of the 12,000 test takers opted to use their laptops.

At most law schools, course exams are routinely administered on laptops. Most students are familiar with exam software and accustomed to taking all their notes and outlining on laptops.

“I was kind of scared to do the handwriting,” said Katie Brandes, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School.

Still, even some laptop addicts will rely on their chicken scratch rather than risk a computer crash.

“A lot of people are choosing to handwrite because their laptops are so old,” Ms. Brandes said, referring to classmates who bought their computers at the start of law school three years ago. “They’re worried that they won’t handle the software.”

For Mac users and others who might want to borrow a PC for the exam, the board offers this warning:

There are risks associated with renting or borrowing a computer for use on the bar examination. If you no longer have access to the computer after the conclusion of the examination, you may not be able to retrieve files which could assist in the recovery of missing portions of your essay answers.

Drew Kovacs, a Mac user, is not bothered. Mr. Kovacs, who graduated from the New York University School of Law, borrowed a PC from a friend who said he could keep it for the whole summer. Even if the board did offer software for Mac users, he said he still wouldn’t have used it.

“Even though I have a Mac and I like my Mac, I wouldn’t have done it because it hasn’t been tested on a Mac,” he said. “I think the software needs to develop to the point of being completely reliable.”

The New York exam is not the only one causing technical anxieties. Other states have had problems, too, and are also trying to deal with imperfections in the technology, said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

The next step for the New York board is to work on approving exam software for Mac users, said Mr. McAlary. He said they’ll wait for the February exam to explore the options. “We have enough on our plate right now.”