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The decision to change the Texas Board of Legal Specialization’s family law exam is causing some to ask questions — and leading to defections from the commission that prepares the test. TBLS executive director Gary McNeil says four of the nine members of the Family Law Exam Commission stepped down within the last month. Some of the former commission members voiced displeasure with changes to the certification exam, he says. The four are Brian Webb, a partner in Dallas’ Webb & Ackels; Mike O’Reilly, a partner in Corpus Christi’s O’Reilly & Kelly; Curtis Loveless, a partner in Denton’s Loveless & Loveless; and Jim Farris, a partner in Austin’s Farris & Green. Between them, they had 37 years’ experience on the Family Law Exam Commission. While some of the four did not approve of changes to the family law test, McNeil says that may not be the sole reason for the resignations. That may be one of the reasons they didn’t want to serve anymore, McNeil says. “They may just want a change of scenery, also.” McNeil says the family law exam is a three-part test. One section features 80 to 100 multiple-choice questions focusing on family law. Another section has 20 multiple-choice questions concerning ethical issues. It’s the third part — an essay section — that’s creating the controversy. In the past, it has included numerous short essay questions — 69 last year. McNeil says the essay section will be whittled down to three longer essay questions, with numerous subsections, beginning this year. The next family law test is scheduled for October. DUMBED DOWN? McNeil says the test is not being oversimplified. But he says some of the exiting exam commissioners thought it would no longer cover the breadth of issues they felt should be required on the test. He will not specify which of the former commission members held that point of view, saying he does not feel comfortable speaking on anyone else’s behalf. Loveless and Farris did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment. O’Reilly declines to comment. Webb says there was disagreement among the commissioners and TBLS over the need to reformat the family law test. Webb says the current test works just fine and that a changed test would burden him and other commissioners with a great deal of work. “I didn’t have the time to commit to reinventing the wheel,” Webb says. He adds that the new test should still be good and that his exit isn’t intended to be one made in anger. Webb served on the commission since 1988. McNeil says Webb had just been reappointed this year to another three-year term on the panel. Farris, having served since 1995, also had been recently reappointed to another three-year term, McNeil says. O’Reilly had served on the family law exam panel since 1990. He leaves the exam commission in midstream, with his appointment due to continue until 2003, McNeil says. Loveless also left midterm, McNeil says. Loveless was due to continue on the family law exam commission until 2002, having served there since 1994. McNeil says it is not uncommon for exam commission members in the various areas of specialization to leave midterm; however, he says it is rare for so many members of a nine-member commission to leave at one time. The number of members on the various exam commissions varies; the Family Law Exam Commission has more members than most. McNeil says it is not unusual, for example, for two of five exam commissioners to leave in a single year. NEW RECRUITS Passage rates on the family law exam appear to vary sharply from year to year, but statistics may be affected by a relatively small pool of lawyers seeking certification. Statistics provided by the TBLS show that 61 percent passed the test in 1996, dropping to 47 percent in 1997, rising to 51 percent in 1998, shrinking to 40 percent in 1999 and soaring to 65 percent in 2000. But the number of people taking the test ranged from 28 in the lowest year for passage to 48 in the most recent round of testing, allowing for the passage rate to vary significantly based on the limited number of people seeking certification. McNeil says the test is graded on a “modified bell curve.” He says there is no preset passing score. “We see how the grades go and make a judgment call as to where it, the pass line, should be drawn,” McNeil says. McNeil says TBLS is trying to have one exam format for all the various disciplines. The certification tests for personal-injury litigation and criminal trial work already are in the new format. Juvenile, labor and real estate law are switching this year, along with family law. He says changes in other tests have not led to defections from exam commissions in those areas and the TBLS is actively recruiting new members for the Family Law Exam Commission. University of Texas School of Law family law Professor Jack Sampson, who says he helped write the first family law exam that began in 1975, offers a general thought. Although Sampson does not know specifics of the current situation, he says those who already are certified generally favor high standards for those who are seeking certification. Notes Sampson, “Almost all lawyers who are inside the tent think there are too many storming the tent, the citadel, to get in.”

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