Not your father’s bar exam

Franklin Harrison (JD 72) likened improving the bar examination process to the time his 8-year-old granddaughter ran up to him and asked excitedly: “Can you see anything different about me?”

Harrison was perplexed until she told him. “She was wearing deodorant,” he chuckled.

The anecdote illustrates ongoing changes in the bar exam.

“There really are things going on,” he said. “To the world it looks the same, though.”

franklin harrison

Franklin Harrison (JD 72)

The bar examination process has the potential to make or break the careers of budding lawyers, and for Harrison, it’s a process that is constantly evolving.

He is outgoing chairman of the National Conference of Bar Examiners and an emeritus member of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. During his years in the field, he’s seen “a great improvement in the quality of the bar exam,” but not the kind of thing that’s always obvious to the casual observer.

The Florida board, on which Harrison served for five years, is an arm of the Florida Supreme Court that administers the bar exam. It acts as the gatekeeper determining who should (and should not) be admitted to practice in the state, and it investigates the background of applicants in the process.

Harrison goes to hearings that vet applicants when fitness and character issues arise during the application process. For students seeking admission to the bar, he said honesty is often their saving grace.

He said members of the Florida board visit each law school in the state each year to speak to 1Ls about remaining transparent throughout their stints in law school.

“They emphasize if you didn’t tell the truth on your law school application, go and amend it,” he said.

For example, he said some students lie about or don’t include details on law school applications about minor incidents that by themselves might never block entrance to the bar, such as a DUI citation, misdemeanor arrests and juvenile records. But if it’s discovered that a student was not candid on their law school application or bar application process, it could be a cause for denial.

The August revision of the board’s Beginning Student Information guide, which encourages applicants to “err on the side of disclosure.” The national conference, which Harrison has chaired for the past year, produces the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). It also produces multistate essay, performance, and professional responsibility exams, which are used in every jurisdiction except Louisiana.

He noted a movement toward implementing the Uniform Bar Exam, in which each jurisdiction agrees to certain parameters for the exam. In turn, all jurisdictions would honor the scores applicants receive on the test.

Another area in the board examination process receiving attention is how to test would-be lawyers for legal research and legal writing skills — a deficiency some new lawyers take flak for. In response, he said, the MultiState Bar Exam recently completed an extensive survey of lawyers in their first three years of practice to determine the nature of their practice as well as the skills they tend to use the most. Research and legal writing were shown to be of high importance, which could foretell a shift in the testing regime. But right now, this research is simply adding to a bank of knowledge that will be aggregated over a long period of time.

“You don’t change the bar exam overnight,” he said. “That’s years in the making.”

While changing the bar exam is a slow-moving process, Harrison pointed to improvements in its clarity during the last generation.

“It’s not your father’s bar exam, as they say. I think the bar exam of today is much more straightforward. The questions are designed to find out if you understand a point of law, not to trick you.”

Another improvement is the increasing availability of online help. The national conference is getting ready to roll out the fourth online practice exam — a real multistate bar exam that test-takers can use to focus their prep work at a modest price.

“I think in the future you’ll see online bar exams — computerized instead of sitting down with pen and paper,” Harrison said. “I think something else we can look to in the future is a legal research test that you can do online — doing real, live research.”

Although online tests present security problems and can be expensive to implement, those are issues the national conference is actively looking into.

gail sasnett-stauffer

Gail Sasnett-Stauffer

Gail Sasnett-Stauffer, the outgoing chairwoman of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, confirmed that being forthcoming about any discrepancy is the best path.

“The Florida Supreme Court has held that candor is the most important quality for being an attorney,” said Sasnett-Stauffer, the former UF Law associate dean for students. “That is why it’s so important to be up-front with The Florida Board of Bar Examiners.”

The August revision of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners’ Beginning Student Information guide encourages applicants to “err on the side of disclosure” and advises that “what may seem like an insignificant event can loom large in the bar application process if you are not candid with the board.”

Because of the thorough vetting process, Harrison said lawyers already established in the profession can rest assured that newly admitted lawyers will be a credit to the profession.

“I think that lawyers should know that bar admissions in Florida are in good hands,” he said. “They’re in the hands of a board that holds applicants to high standards.”