On Taking the Bar Exam at Age 65

Retirement comes easier for some than others. Despite years of reading and preparation for retirement, it was hard for me to accept that I could simply sit around doing whatever I wanted to do without contributing in some way to the good of humanity.

“Fransen family guilt syndrome” (you can look this up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5 – it’s just below “I can’t believe you are really looking this up”) kept calling out to me: “by what right are you occupying this piece of earth?” and “how are you contributing today to the good of society?” and “what have you done today to deserve the breath you just took?” Not to mention the lack of positive reinforcement that comes from a daily flow of satisfied clients. All of a sudden, on January 1, 2016, that flow stopped when I retired and nothing had taken its place.

Initially retirement was great. We took delivery of our motorhome, and immediately headed out for a road trip. By April of 2016, however, while lazily enjoying the spectacular view from our RV site in Southern California, I found myself googling information about taking the Bar exam in our newly adopted home state of Oregon. The deadline was the next day.

So, almost two years ago to this day, I feverishly put together and timely mailed my application package to take the Oregon Bar, and sent in my $3,000 to take the Bar/Bri bar review course.

Three days later I broke my hand.

The Oregon Bar people were nice, and gave me some of my application fee back. Bar/Bri however exerted a vice-like grip on the funds I paid them. NO refunds. Period. OK, how about I donate my Bar review course to a needy law graduate who would otherwise be unable to pay for it? NO. Period. May I defer and take it another time? Yes, until Kingdom comes. So I deferred every 6 months until last Fall. By then, I had gotten tired of dealing with Bar/Bri, and it irked me that I could not get any benefit from the bar review course I had bought unless I used it myself. And, I needed something to do during the dreariest winter months in Portland. With no plans to go back into law practice, and really for no good reason at all, I re-applied to take the Oregon Bar exam to be given at the end of February 2018, and started the bar review course on January 1. I figured that it was my personal Alzheimer’s test. If I can pass the Bar exam, then maybe I don’t have Alzheimer’s. Yet.

I quickly realized that there was way more material to learn than can be mastered, even though the course was basically all day, every day, 7 days a week for two months. During those two months I asked myself over and over again, why am I doing this? Avid reader and cousin Dave, in whom I had confided, cannily observed that enduring the Bar exam with no clear purpose to use your law license was the definition of insanity. I had no defense.

It was tempting to bail. Almost no one would know. But every time I got close to withdrawing, I started a new practice exam and once started could not stop. Every fact situation was a new problem to be solved. It was addictive.

Many people have asked “how was it?”

You would think it would be a lark, since I had passed the California Bar in 1977 on my first attempt, and had practiced law for almost four decades. You would also think it would be low stress, since I really did not have plans to go back into practice. To the contrary, my heart was pounding out of my chest cavity the first morning of the exam. I’m still not sure why. Maybe the potential embarrassment at failing now is worse than the potential inability to provide for my family was 40 years ago.

And for a number of reasons it was actually harder than the first time:

  • In 1977, I had just finished three intense years of law school study covering all the Bar topics; now that working knowledge is 40 years old (meaning, gone forever).
  • In 1977 I had a 25 year old brain; now I have a 65 year old brain which does not retain nearly as well.
  • Decades of hard won wisdom and experience turns out to be worse than worthless. Here is the analogy: the Navy and Air Force prefer non-pilots for pilot training. Private pilots have to un-learn civilian techniques before they can learn the military way. Same here: everything I knew about California law I had to un-learn, so I could learn the common law, the majority view, the minority view, and the model code. Everything except the actual law of California or Oregon!

In many ways the Bar exam tests the wrong things, and fails to test actual competency to practice law. It would be like medical students having to learn the proper placement of leeches, rather than modern diagnostic and treatment protocols. Maybe the point is not to determine what you actually know, but rather your ability to learn a vast amount of material, in a very short period of time, in a high-stress environment, and regurgitate it in a prescribed way. If you get through this, you may not be ready to practice law, but you are ready to learn how. Like a private pilot license, maybe it is just a license to learn.

As the day approached when the results were to be announced, I found myself ambivalent. If I failed, that was that, I can close the Bar/Bri file forever, and no need to think about it ever again. If I pass, though, decisions need to be made. Should I take the oath and pay the Bar dues and insurance premiums? Then I’ll need to look for something to do with my ticket just to cover expenses. Or should I just take the oath and immediately go to inactive status, which makes all of this an utter waste of time and money. Yes, it would be much simpler to flunk and remain on the retirement trajectory to which I am slowly becoming accustomed.

The letter from the Oregon State Bar arrived at home this week while we are still on our latest road trip. Daughter Kate had been checking our mail and called me. I stepped out of a busy restaurant to take the call. “Well.” I said, “what’s the word?”

She started out “you know Dad, it is a very difficult exam.” Ahh, she is letting me down easy. She started reading the letter to me: “The minimum score to pass the exam is 274. Your combined score was…” OK, I flunked. I knew that because when I took the California Bar you only got your actual score if you failed. If you passed, they only told you that you passed. No score.
She continued: “Your score was 325!” The Oregon rules are now different. They tell you your score whether you pass or fail.
I passed.
Now decisions will need to be made. Life may get a little more complicated. But at least I don’t have Alzheimer’s.
Yet.

10 thoughts on “On Taking the Bar Exam at Age 65

  1. Congratulations Ken (I think)! This doesn’t surprise me at all. I always knew you would have a difficult time not flunking retirement. And I’m glad you don’t have Alzheimers. Yet.

    Larry

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  2. Ken, I thought about it on the 19th and I knew the results were coming and I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting but in my heart I already knew that you had passed. But it’s nice to get the affirmation that you did and I’m so proud of you. I wasn’t expecting anything other than this outcome but I just want you to know how very proud we are iamb of you and I’m so happy for you and you’ve worked so hard and you are more than deserving of this outcome. Love you

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. All I can say is you’re a crazy man!! You apparently flunked Retirement 101 but, WOW, what an accomplishment!! I certainly found I was having more difficulty retaining information for exams I wrote near the end of my career. So give yourself a big pat on the back for being so tenacious and SO SUCCESSFUL. CONGRATS from your Saskatchewan friends who are in awe😀 We just returned from our marathon winter trip to Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. And we didn’t remember HALF of the places where we did “ whatever “. A fantastic trip with lots of check marks on our bucket list. We had a couple of items added to our list what we didn’t want there but they went on and came off, thankfully. I’m talking our first experience with a cyclone. Cyclone Iris caused us some Grief and certainly wrecked some travel plans. Plus we were in Maui when they had the “ Ballistic Missile warning” As they say, “may you live in interesting times”. Life is for living, and we’re giving it our best shot. We came out to the lake today and staying for a few days. Love it here. Watching the NHL game. Toronto 4 vs Boston 2. Tough series for Toronto but they are down 3 games to 1 so they need this win. All the best to you and Carol. Jean and Harvey Sent from Jeans iPhone

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  4. Way to go! Maybe there’s more in that noggin than you remember.

    Now, just don’t stop traveling and posting and we will still get along just fine.

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  5. SAY WHAT ???

    Those “dreariest winter months in Portland” must be far worse than northern Scandinavia and certainly justify an equal amount of vodka. Congratulations, Ken! ________________________________

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