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Among the war stories attorneys typically share, the experience of taking the bar exam often stands out like a sore thumb. Even years after the fact, the mere mention of the exam gives many the chills. Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners executive director Mark Dows is trying to change that. It’s been about a year since Dows, a former Air Force II pilot, took the controls of the PABLE, the body responsible for administering the bar exam in Pennsylvania. While he has no authority over the content of the multistate exam or the essay section, Dows is trying to make the experience of taking the test — from submitting an application to sitting for the exam — a more positive one. Dows’ concerns may seem pretty run-of-the-mill to people who haven’t dealt with the board in recent years. But he said the comments he has received from applicants indicated a need for change. “There was a lot of negative feedback about the office, and increasing communication was my main concern,” Dows said. “We badly needed to work on customer service,” Dows said, adding that it remains his primary mission. To help open the lines of communication, Dows has started actively seeking feedback. “I will listen to feedback from anyone,” he said. Before the last testing session on the day of the exam, all applicants receive a feedback form. Dows himself gets behind the microphone as the forms are being handed out to encourage applicants to fill them out and to feel free to talk to him after the exam or call the board office at a later date to talk about anything that could have been done better. As he goes through the overhaul of the application and other policies, Dows said he remembers specific students who made comments and tries to do his best to accommodate them. “One isolated complaint from one person is not necessarily a reason to change policy, but you never know,” said Dows. “I have gotten great suggestions from people. And the applicants are the ones who know what’s wrong with the system. They can tell me where there are problems. They are my greatest resource; I wouldn’t have a job without them.” He said opening communication was also his mission within the offices of PABLE. “Within the office, we had a stunning lack of policy and procedure. Maybe it’s my military background, but I saw a need to jump in and eliminate confusion and clarify things for applicants as well as our staff here in Mechanicsburg,” he said. “We all have to work together, and I am working hard to build their respect and trust,” he said. “Respect is something you have to earn.” During his tenure with Air Force II, Dows was responsible for flying many government officials including Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dan Quayle, former Secretary of State James Baker and Colin Powell. More recently, he flew the body of Richard Nixon. Dows also worked as a police officer in Upper Allen Township in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for four years between his two stints with the Air Force. While an MP, he flew cargo planes in Dover, Del., and worked as a special investigator for the Inspector General before picking up a Masters in Public Administration from Central Michigan University in 1993. But Dows hardly fits the stereotype of an unfeeling military type. While he maintains a rigorous personal schedule that includes an hour-long run each day, and he is usually the first one in the office at 7:30 a.m. (confirmed by his assistant), he said his first concern is for the comfort of his staff and others. BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS As part of his effort to open communication and to improve the board’s public image, Dows has started reaching out to the community it serves — law students and recent graduates. Dows visited law schools across the state this year, something unprecedented for the board of law examiners. He traveled to each of the schools to give first-year students an orientation to the exam, before that last-minute panic sets in. Then he came back to the school to speak to the third-years. “It’s great,” Dows said. “We go out to all seven law schools, we give a Power Point demonstration, and we talk with them. We show pictures of what the test site looks like, and we tell them what’s going to happen, step by step. “You have no idea how much it puts students at ease,” he said. “I’ve had students come up to me and say, ‘thank you for showing that picture of the room. Just knowing what it looks like makes me less nervous.’ This way, they aren’t surprised when they get there,” Dows said. The first-year students are more worried about character and fitness issues, he said, whereas the third-years just want the cold facts. “They mostly just ask, ‘OK, what do I have to fill out and what’s the deadline?’” Dows laughed. “But we still fill an important role in letting them know we’re listening to them.” “I want to make this the best experience possible for applicants,” he said. THE APPLICATION Among Dows’ many responsibilities is putting the exam application together. He’s currently working on the February 2001 application, which he said he has worked hard to streamline. Candidates who submitted their applications as recently as three years ago undoubtedly recall the experience as a daunting one, Dows noted. “I’m going over each question to see what’s really necessary and what can be left out. I only want to ask applicants for the information we really need,” he said. Many of the changes Dows has made will benefit reapplicants, who have lamented the cost of resubmitting a new criminal history and driver’s abstract, as well as the tedium of resubmitting a full list of employers and residences each time they apply to take the exam, he said. Dows has done away with those requirements and now asks applicants to submit only information that has changed since the last time they applied to the board. That marks a noticeable departure from the prior policy, which required all applicants to fill out an entirely new application. Dows said that simply isn’t necessary. “We keep everything on file from the prior applications, so there was no reason to make people go through that again,” Dows said. “Applicants already have a continuing obligation to keep the board aware of changes in their history, so it was repetitive and quite expensive for people to keep sending away for all of these documents.” Reapplicants also had to file personal affidavits — letters basically stating the phrase, “I have not resided in Massachusetts for X number of years, and I certify that I do not have a criminal record there,” for driving and criminal history purposes. Dows has eliminated those, as well as the requirement of law school transcripts. THE RIGHT LOCATION There are three Pennsylvania sites for the July exam: the Valley Forge Convention Center; the Harrisburg Marriott; and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Dows said he worries about the physical test sites far in advance of the February and July exams. He is unwavering in his demand that students be comfortable, he said. “I will not have bad chairs or tables for my students. I am fighting as of this moment to get new tables, since some applicants were snagged by the staples left in the tables we rented last time. “I also go to the venues to make sure that the air conditioning is working for July, and the heat is OK for February. Of course, how hot or cold you are is a matter of personal preference, so that’s why we do tell people to dress in layers.” And the little incidentals like food and parking are on Dows’ mind also. “I made sure when I came in [as executive director] that there was a food concession at the exam in the morning for people who needed breakfast and lunch but who didn’t want to leave the test site. They shouldn’t have to leave there and risk coming back late for the afternoon session,” he said. “Last time, people complained that getting out of Valley Forge Convention Center was really a bottleneck, and I know people really want to get out of there when they’re done. I hired traffic cops to make things run smoother.” Dows said he’s still not sure that will solve the problem, but he will continue to work on it if things don’t improve. COMPUTER AGE Dows said that he brought the board office’s computers into the 1990s — in 1998. “I was shocked,” he said. “We only had [IBM] 486 DOS computers — just two years ago. One of the first things I did was bring Pentium and Windows computers in here. “Our data-entry, which our staff uses to key in applicant data, is still DOS-based, and 13 years old. I am having a new program written for that.” The Web site is another product of Dows’ initiative to make the board more user-friendly to applicants. Dows ultimately wants applicants to be able to apply online and to have that data automatically entered into the board’s files. “We’ve gone from providing downloadable documents online — which applicants would still have to print out and use a typewriter to complete — to having documents they can type their information on directly, but they still have to print them out and mail them to us,” Dows said. He hopes applicants will be able to apply online for the February exam. And Dows wants to go even further with computers, bringing them into the exam itself. Dows recently received 30 computer terminals at his office — a donation from the state Supreme Court — to test out at his office for a simulated exam. He eventually plans to have applicants take the exam on computers, eliminating the need to write essays in longhand for six hours. “I believe that students should not be judged on bad handwriting, since the computer is a tool of the trade they will use in the real world,” Dows said. “Applicants have expressed a preference for computer-based testing, and I think it is realistic to test them in that form.” Dows said he is closely watching what happens in Colorado, where a program called “The Examinator” is now being tested. With it, an applicant could use his or her own laptop to take the exam, because the program “locks up” the user’s hard drive. “That way, an applicant can’t cheat using notes they have stored in their computer,” Dows said. “It costs about $110 per applicant, but people I’ve surveyed say they would gladly pay it for the convenience,” said Dows. Once the exam is over, Dows said, he wants to continue to use the board’s Web site to maximize convenience and ease of communication with applicants. “In the future, they will be given an applicant number which they can check online for their results,” he said. Dows said this would eliminate security worries of the past, where successful applicants were sometimes unpleasantly surprised to find that their name and address had been published on the Internet without their consent. “We only publish the name of the applicant now,” said Dows. Even after each exam is administered, the meetings and reformulation of ideas begin anew for Dows, as he plans for the next one. True to form, Dows said he will strive to make it top-flight.

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