Opening Statements

Georgia bar exam mistake takes toll on 90 law students

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Imagine that you spend countless hours studying for the bar exam. You take the exam. You are told that you failed. Then you find out that you did, indeed, pass the exam after all.

That’s exactly what happened to 90 students in Georgia, who were told they failed the July 2015 or February 2016 exam when they actually passed.

For John Sammon, chair of the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners, individually calling all 90 students who were told they supposedly failed the exam was the only option.

“The conversations took anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes,” he says. “I explained what happened and what we were doing to correct the problem, and everybody appreciated the phone call. I also met with some of the students in person.

“It was important to me that they also have a personal apology and explanation,” Sammon adds. “We talked about them being sworn in and about reimbursement of fees. I did not want the calls to seem rushed or perfunctory.”

One of the students who received a call from Sammon was AJ Lakraj. He graduated from Emory University School of Law in May 2015.

Lakraj took the exam in July, started a job with the Barrett & Farahany employment and labor law firm in Atlanta, and was notified in October 2015 that he had failed.

“I remember the list was in alphabetical order, and I didn’t see my name,” Lakraj recalls. “My heart dropped, and I just stared at the computer screen, sat at the side of my bed and just sat there for hours. I felt like I had lost everything. I put in the time and the effort, and you feel you have to retake it, and there was doubt that I’d even want to do that again.

“I had two buddies who I was close to in law school, and both of them passed it, and I was even embarrassed to talk to them. I just sat there crying.”

Lakraj went into work the day he received the bad news.

“My boss urged me to come in, and she was sympathetic and told me I’d still have my job. My intention wasn’t to come in to get her sympathy; it was to go in to show I had value to the firm. At that moment in time, you feel your career is over.”

A law student’s job prospects can hinge on passing the bar exam. Mike Sims is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and president of the popular bar-preparation course Barbri.

He knows how hard students study for the bar and how overwhelming it can be to find out they failed.

“Failing the bar exam is emotionally and physically devastating,” he says. “Most of these people have never failed at anything before. It’s a tough job market, and being a JD without a law license makes it even tougher.”

Fortunately, Lakraj already had a job when he doubled down to study for the bar a second time. He went on to retake and (again) pass the exam in February 2016.

“I was angry that I went through the whole process of taking the bar exam twice when I didn’t need to,” he says. “I don’t think that anybody can really appreciate that experience unless it’s happened to you.”

According to Sammon, the errors happened during a recalculation of the test takers’ scores. The Georgia Board of Bar Examiners always reassesses essay answers from applicants whose initial scores fall within five points of passing.

However, after regrading those 90 tests to assign a “pass” on the essay portion, the change was not properly calculated by the computer to boost the final, scaled exam score to a “pass.”

Despite the debacle, Sammon is certain that he and the Georgia board have taken the proper steps so the problem never recurs.

“What we have done is hire a psychometrician to handle the calculations of the scores,” Sammon says.

“That’s the primary step, and we’ll always use the services of a psychometrician. Our goal is to conduct a fair and reliable exam with reliable results, and we’re confident the problem will never happen again.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Pass-Fail: Georgia bar exam mistake takes toll on 90 law students.”

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