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By all available evidence — more precisely, no sign of trouble — the first widespread use of laptop computers by July’s record-setting crop of candidates for the New York state bar was a breeze. No glitches, no complaints and no errors, according to the Board of Law Examiners in Albany. “We’re still going over everything to analyze how it went, but we think it was pretty smooth,” said John J. McAlary, the group’s executive director. “So far, we haven’t seen anything that would encourage us to take a step back.” The exam was held over two days last week at sites in Buffalo, Albany and New York City. Of the nearly 11,000 exam-takers, 1,000 were permitted to complete the first-day essay portion on laptops at a single specially prepared location in Manhattan’s Jacob J. Javits Center. But more than 1,800 applicants requested permission to use laptops equipped with secure software, said McAlary. Since the Javits space could accommodate about half that number, the lucky 1,000 were selected in June by lottery. “It’s more expensive for us now, administratively, but in time I expect we’ll realize a savings,” said McAlary. “We hope to accommodate a lot more people next July.” In two previous test runs allowing candidates to keyboard their essays rather than writing them out by hand in blue books, far fewer applicants sought to employ personal computers. Last February, only about 250 candidates used laptops; in July 2004, about 400 did so. Each year, said McAlary, “We’re seeing more and more people who grew up in the computer age, people beholden to their laptops.” At virtually any law school, he said by way of illustration, there are far more students taking lecture notes with laptops than with pens. In recent years, he said the law board received a steadily increasing number of requests or suggestions from computer-savvy bar candidates. “We knew we had to keep up with advancing technology,” said McAlary. “Still, we weren’t prepared to open [laptop use] to everyone. You need to move this incrementally, to make sure it works.” SECURITY CONCERNS The law board’s greatest concern was security, meaning how to be reasonably certain of preventing laptop users from cheating. To some degree, that problem had already been dealt with in accommodating a handful of candidates each year who are physically incapable of handwriting. The recent pilot tests — as well as reported success in other states where laptops are used, notably California — clinched the law board’s decision to enter the computer age. July’s 1,000 laptop users paid an extra $70 for the privilege. The surcharge went to Software Secure of Cambridge, Mass., which provided a program called Securexam. The company is one of three in the nation offering bar exam software. When downloaded, Securexam locks out a computer’s ability to access all other applications, blocks any internal or external hard drives, and prevents wireless communication. Applicants download the software from the Internet and complete a practice test reviewed by both the company and the law board. McAlary acknowledged that it remains possible for dishonest exam-takers to peek at a neighboring laptop — possible but difficult, given screen distortion caused by sight angles and the extra bit of space given to those with computers. “But I don’t think this is any different than individuals writing the exam by hand whose eyes wander,” said McAlary. “You still monitor the old-fashioned way, with human bodies — proctors.” Proctors are on hand to answer questions and otherwise assist nerve-jangled exam-takers throughout their two-day ordeal. For every 25 to 30 candidates, said McAlary, there is one identifiable proctor. But just to make sure there is no unanticipated funny business on the part of laptop users, there are now “floating proctors” who may not be quite so evident. How many floaters? McAlary said, “I’d rather not say.”

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