Suppose a judge gave you 5 1/4 hours to write the most important brief of your career and ordered you to write it in longhand? Would you be uneasy?
That’s how 300 would-be lawyers felt when told that after years of typing their law school tests, their laptops won’t be welcome at this month’s New Jersey Bar examination. The 300 will be using longhand for the July 27 test because they lost a lottery for the 400 hookups available at the power-equipped test location to be divulged to registrants this week. With rare exceptions, longhand was the only option for those who took the test until last July, when the New Jersey Board of Bar Examiners began a pilot program to test laptop use. For that exam, the board set aside 200 spaces and not all were taken. The same thing happened in February. Now, the board has been overrun by the advance guard of a generation of test takers weaned from blue books to laptops by their technology-minded law schools. “We really didn’t have an idea what to expect since in our prior two exams we didn’t exceed our capacity,” says Laura Brooks, assistant secretary to the board. “We decided to expand because that was the next step for us. We didn’t think that it would jump that incrementally, but it did.” She says the popularity of keyboarding for the exam has been caused by the growth of laptops in law school. Indeed, the software for the exam is made by the same company that provides testing software for Seton Hall University School of Law. “I’m not sure I have ever handwritten a test in law school,” says Daniel Lageman, a recent Seton Hall Law School graduate. He lost lotteries for laptop use for the New Jersey and New York bar exams. “It’s going to be a big challenge,” says Lageman, who rates his anxiety level at five on a scale of one to 10, and says the central issue is organization, not legibility. When working on a word processor, he explains, the writer embarks on a logical progression, but if ideas occur at random, they can be written down immediately and quickly. Then the entire essay can be organized correctly by moving around text in the polishing process. “When you’re handwriting, you can’t go back and organize,” he says. LINKING GRADES AND KEYBOARDS Gary Bavero, assistant dean of academic affairs and policy at Seton Hall, says that as some students approach the test, “They’re going to say, ‘I’ve had success typing, but now I can’t do it on the bar exam and my chances may go down.’” Some students believe — falsely, the Board of Bar Examiners says — that graders have an idea of what percentage should pass. So students look upon the test as a competition among applicants and “they fear, if they don’t get to type, they may not pass,” Bavero says. “They may think they’re at a disadvantage.” Bavero says that out of 240 first-year students at the school this year, only five took their exams in longhand. The class of 2006 wasn’t so computer literate, but Bavero estimates a vast majority of the class took tests on laptops. At Rutgers Law School-Newark, Andrew Rothman, assistant dean for academic administration, says taking tests on laptops is available to every student and that about 50 percent are doing so. He predicts it won’t be long before the bar exam is hit with 2,000 requests for computer use. “Students rightly or wrongly believe that the more they write in answer to an essay question, the more likely it is that they will gain the points needed to pass,” he says. “Being deprived of the maximum number of words is a huge factor.” In New Jersey, 3,400 people registered for the July bar exam, which means the 700 applicants for computer space represented about one-fifth of the registrants. By comparison, laptop space is available for all 1,008 candidates who requested it among the 2,200 registrants for the Pennsylvania bar exam, says Mark Dows, executive director of the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners. Since it started allowing laptops four years ago, Pennsylvania has never turned away an applicant who wanted to use a computer, Dows says. Pennsylvania will have computer availability at all three of its test sites. In New York, 10,000 people will take the test, 3,400 entered a lottery and 2,200 won it. New York, like New Jersey, is building incrementally. It had 1,000 spaces a year ago and 1,500 in February. The 2,200 lottery winners will take the test on computer at the Javits Center, a convention space in Manhattan. With more and more schools testing by computer, “it’s going to be growing and growing,” says John McAlary, executive director of the New York State Board of Bar Examiners. Procedures for the test are similar throughout the country. The registrants use their own laptops, outfitted weeks before with proprietary software that they pay for and can practice with before the exam. The computers are plugged into outlets at the test site and, when the exam is over, the typewritten versions end in the pile to be graded alongside the handwritten tests. GLITCH-FREE PROCESS SO FAR Brooks says the number of available spaces has grown incrementally because the board wanted to be assured there would be no glitches. So far, so good. No keyboarded exam has been lost, Brooks says. Costs also have been a factor, she says. It costs the state $10 to $30 more per computer-tested registrant to cover the hookup charges by the private venues where the tests are held, she says. Brooks says the board hasn’t compared the pass-fail rates of keyboarders and handwriters, but may do so. The more interesting study, from the students’ perspective, would be a comparison of grades by lottery winners and losers. Dows, the director of the Pennsylvania board, says laptop users scored 2 percentage points higher than those who did not use laptops. But the laptop users also scored 2 percentage points higher on the handwritten multiple choice portion. That suggests it wasn’t the laptops that created the advantage. The laptop users were better all around. Darryl Simpkins of Hillsborough’s Simpkins & Simpkins, chair of the state board, says using laptops “allows students to step into the 21st century.” When he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984, portable computers with any juice were still on the horizon. For future tests, Simpkins says, “we will try to expand the program as quickly and as carefully as we can.” He says students without laptops should not be concerned their grade will be hurt by messy handwriting or the inability to write at length. “The mere fact that an exam is neat and pretty doesn’t really get to the substance of it,” he says. “The essential element that we look for is that an exam has to be well-written, has a logical progression of analysis, that the grammar is proper and that they focus on the question,” he says. “A grader may be able to read a typewritten book quicker if they’re not slowed down by handwriting, but if they don’t answer it well, it would be more clearly visible,” Simpkins adds. As for extra words, he says, “if someone merely regurgitates doctrine, they’re not gaining any points. The verbiage doesn’t help and it could make the score go down.” In the meantime, the lottery losers are practicing their handwriting. Robert Cohen, vice president of Bar/Bri Bar Review, says some students who lost the lottery have a legitimate concern and his company’s preparation course for the exam now places more emphasis on handwriting for students who are rusty on penmanship. And some lottery losers haven’t accepted defeat, says Douglas Winneg, president of Securexam of Cambridge, Mass., which provides the software and conducted the lottery for the New Jersey and New York tests. Winneg says he received e-mails from desperate registrants. A typical plea: “They are flying in from California and their employment offer is contingent on passing the bar exam, and their starting salary is $150,000 so this is of significant value to them.” The hope was for a seat at the computer table and the answer was no. Winneg says, “I felt horrible, but what can you do?”