This week, I received a letter from the California State Bar Association. The letter made me happy, sad, and nervous simultaneously. In order to explain why, let's take a tour through the legal profession (some of you may know this and can skip the tour and meet us at the end for drinks and snacks).
Lawyers, like doctors and accountants, are a self-regulating profession. That means that we get to decide who gets to practice law and who doesn't. Graduated first in your class from Harvard? Don't care, you may still never get to be a real lawyer. See, in order to actually BE a lawyer, you have to first graduate from law school (and not just any law school, but one accredited by the American Bar Association, which is answerable to no one regarding whom it chooses to accredit and whom it chooses not to accredit. Next year, it could un-accredit Harvard and there wouldn't be anything anyone could do about it. Suck it, Skippy Englewhite IV). THEN, and this is the big part, you have to pass the bar exam in the state in which you want to practice. Yes, that's right: in this day and age of people constantly moving from state to state (not like, say, 1812), your lawyer license is NOT transportable. In most states, if you've been a lawyer for at least 5 years, you can sign a piece of paper and they'll just waive you in. But in at least 12 states (including California and Texas, home of such legal masterminds as Alberto Gonzales), it doesn't matter if your 80 years old, have been a Supreme Court justice and shit lightening bolts: if you want to practice law in that state, you have to pass the bar exam all over again. Bit of trivia: the call it the "bar" exam, and they call the association of admitted lawyers the "bar" association because in every courtroom, you will find a little railing, or "bar" which separates the gallery (where plebes and minorities sit) from the "well," also known as the tables where the lawyers sit plus the witness stand plus the judge's bench. Only lawyers (or arrested criminals who are on trial, or civilians who are being sued) can go past the "bar" in the courtroom. Hence, lawyers "pass the bar." Oddly enough, 9 out of 10 lawyers are ignorant of this bit of trivia. Here's proof: go to any bar where $12 martinis are served, and start asking people. Many of them will be lawyers, and most of them will be ignorant of this. Fun!
Anywho, the state bar of California sent your dear friend CowbowLaw a letter which said, essentially, "We know you're a legal genius. Therefore, we'd like you to be a grader and assess the performance of future bar exam testees, and decide who passes and who don't." At this point in the letter, CowboyLaw was smiling.
Then, the letter got to the issue of compensation. See, CowboyLaw has a really good paying job as it is (fuck you, grammer Nazis!). And not a lot of free time. So, when you ask CowboyLaw to do something other than drink and watch TV in what little free time he has to himself, the question of compensation always comes up. (CowboyLaw also talks about himself a lot in the third person, but that's another story.) The California Bar Assoc. understood that, and so they came right out and spelled out how graders would be compensated. First, there's 4 training sessions you have to attend, which take about 2 days total. For that, you get $800. Not bad. After that, you start grading essay exams and performance exams. The CA bar exam has 6 essay questions and 2 performance exam questions. You get roughly 1 hour each to answer the essay questions. You get roughly 3 hours to answer each performance exam question. People write A LOT when they answer these things (throw in everything but the kitchen sink). The good folks at the CA Bar Assocation were proud to announce that, for each essay question I graded, I would be given three whole dollars. That's right, $3.00. But, that's not all. For each performance exam I graded, I would get $3.50.
Now, don't start dancing a jig and singing "We're In the Money!" quite yet. See, I actually have to grade these questions. And I know full well that I'm grading a question that literally involves the future profession of the person whom I'm grading. This isn't like a 6th grade spelling test where no one gives a shit about the fact you got a C-. If I give an examinee a bad grade, they may fail to get admitted to practice law in CA. Which, to put it mildly, is a fucking huge problem for them. I thought about what I would need to do if I was going to grade exams and sleep at night without concerns. And I decided that, if I just ripped ass, I could probably grade an exam answer every 10 minutes. That doesn't give me enough time to fully read the answer, but I could skim it and decide roughly how well the person did. So, I could grade 6 essay questions in an hour. Which means I would be making $18/hour, which in CA is just a little less than DOUBLE MINIMUM WAGE. My back-of-the-napkin math says that I make about $68/hour while I'm at work. So, I'd only be working for about 25% of my usual salary. Awesome!
Right about now was when I started to get nervous. Because, see, I had taken the CA bar. And when I had done that, all of my future plans and dreams and hopes were tied to me passing that exam. And it suddenly occured to me that, as a result, all of my future plans and dreams and hopes were dependent on the whims of someone who either (1) thought $18/hour was a great wage, or (2) thought he/she could grade my essays WAY faster than 10 minutes per. And that thought scared the shit out of me. Now, remember: I've already passed. This is like watching the movie Titanic and wondering how it ends. But the sudden realization that my fate had been in the questionable hands of such people retroactively scared me to death.
I've never been a fan of bar exams. They don't test real-world conditions or lawyering skills, they're arbitrary and oftentimes random. I've taken 2 bar exams and passed them both, so you can't call this a case of sour grapes. But this is a hell of a way to run a railroad. And finding out that the compensation given to the graders, the people who are literally the gatekeepers to admission to this noble profession, is not quite double what the guy who runs the Fry-O-Lator at McDonalds makes is a scary revelation.
So, suffice it to say, I shant be grading any bar exam questions any time soon. And I feel really bad for those whose futures depend on the questionable work done by the people who grade these exams.