This is hell week for aspiring lawyers. More than 30,000 of them around the country are cramming day and night for next week's bar examinations - two days of grueling tests that are their tickets to become practicing attorneys.
"It's the worst experience of my entire life," said Ellen Sudow, a June graduate of Antioch Law School here who was forced to stop studying at Georgetown University's law library because the atmosphere there became too frantic.
"They tell you not to panic so much that I'm starting to panic," added Judith Chesser, a spring graduate of Boston College law school.
SHe has a recurring nightmare that she won't be able to sleep the night before the exam starts Tuesda and that she'll fall asleep during the test.
About 800 law school graduates are due to take the D.C. bar examination Tuesday and Wednesday. Another 750 have signed up for the Maryland exam and about 650 are expected to take the Virginia bar. Bar exams are given in July and February.
It takes a grade of 70 to pass in Washington, and and about 65 per cent of the people taking the bar exam pass it. According to Anthony Nigro, secretary of the D.C. Court of Appeals' committee on admissions which runs the bar exam, most of the grades fail between 65 and 72, so every points counts.
Passing is everything. Law school grades, law review honors, prestie of law school count for naught. It is the results of the bar exam alone that determine whether a person can pratice law or now.
"Everything you have done before is totally irrelevant," said Miss Sudow. "You feel you are in psychological warfare with the people who are controlling your entrance to the practice of law."
The D.C. bar exam is designed to test minimum competence in a wide range of legal matters - varying from specific aspects of District law, cush as wills and business practices, to broad principles, such as contracts and constitutional law.
The question of whether the bar exam determines if a person will be a good lawyer has come into an increasing dispute during the past five years - not only by recent law school graduates who feel it is more a test of memorizing skills than of an understanding of the law, but by blacks who sa it is discriminatory and by critics of the legal establishment who believe its question are irrelevant.
Six states have abolished bar exams for graduates of accredited law schools within their boundaries, but most states require the exam for new graduates who want to practice law. Experienced lawyers can often get a license on the basis of passing the bar in another state.
Currently, experts in legal education - including the Law School Admissions Council, the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the Associations of American Law Schools and the American Bar Foundation - are studying the professional performance of lawyers and their scores on law school admissiion tests and bar exams.
As of now, however, "we would want the bar exam to be continued," said Millard Ruud of the Association of Americans Laws Schools.
"We think it is valid. The two efforts to protect the public - graduation from an accredited law school and passage of the bar exam administered by a separate authority - not the schools - are the best assurance there is basic, minimum competence."
But Ellen Sudow believes bar exams "say they (law schools and the organizatized bar) don't trust their standards for accreditation."
As an example of what she describes as the "absurdity" of the questions, she cited instructions that the D.C. exam will not test on the city's new divorce law, which has not yet been codified, but my still include questions on the old, outdate law.
Bar exams are firmly rooted in the nation's history. The first was given in the colony of Delaware in 1763 - 13 years before the Declaration of Indepedence - as an oral exam in open court before a Superior Court judge.
In the late 1800s, the judge said they were too busy to give the tests themselves and appointed committees of lawyers to do it for them. The formalized tests of today evolved from that.
Much as blacks today challenge bar exams as a way to keep them from using the profession of law to effect social change, the legal establishment was accused after World War I of using tests and stricter standards for law schools to keep recent immigrants from becoming lawyers.
Although each state sets its own requirements, 49 of the nation's 53 legal jurisdictions (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) now use a uniform, day-long multiple choice test developed by Educational Testing Service.
This 200-question multistate exam tests students on six basic areas of law - including constitutional law, criminal law and the law of contracts. The students have slightly more than one minute to answer each question.
The other half of the District exam is a full day answering essay questions posed by the six-member Committee on Admissions covering 12 other areas of the law.
They include five questions on legal ethics that were recently added to the D.C. bar exam and are getting an increasing amount of attention to bar exams as lawyers are beginning to examine their code of morality in the wake of Watergate. Two states - Florida and California - require applicants to pss a 40 question test on legal ethics and professional responsibility before they can get a license to practice law. No matter how well they do on other parts of the bar exam, they can't get the license unless they pass the legal ethics section.
The bar exam is considered so grueling tha tmost people taking it - including those who have just graduated from law school - take a special cram course.
One company, the Bar Review Institute, estimates about half the people taking next week's bar exams took courses from it in 32 jurisdictions where it operates.
In Washington, for example, about 625 of the 800 peoplke taking the test are enrolled in BRI courses. In New York, about 2,000 of the 3,800 taking the bar are enrolled with BRI and in California about 3,500 of 6,000 people taking the bar are studying in a BRI course.
"I couldn't imagine taking the bar without it," said Judy Chesser, who started the cram course right after graduation.
"I don't see how you could pass without it. It's necessary," added Ellen Sudow.
Indeed, legal educators such as Oliver Morse, associate dean of the Howard University Law Shool, believe one reason blacks do not do as well as whites on the bar exam is many of them cannot afford the cram course - which costs abotu $300.
"I have a hunch that's a contribution factor," said Morse. "We have a number of students who can't afford it. Others have a problem with full-time attendance at it because they are working for sustenance or to pay back a big debt from "law school."
With so many students across the country taing the same basic cram course, BRI has the ability to influence the shape of the bar exam.
Instructors, for example, tell students to answer the questions on the multistate the way the cram course teaches - even if its appears wrong. The sheer number of BRI-taught students answering the same way means a question will be throw out if the answer the testers want is different from the one BRI teaches.
Steven H. Levine, BRI executive vice president, acknowledged that BRI tries to second guess the bar examiners - often with some success. But when they are wrong, they cause trouble for hundreds of students.
Last year, for example, Georgetown University's Peter Weidenbrush, teaching the BRI cram course in tax law, told the students to questions on corporate taxes were likely to be on the bar exam.
He was wrong and one person reportedly could answer nothing but, "My BRI instructor said you wouldn't ask a question like that." He lost 10 crucial points.
Levine speculated that Jeanne L. Dobres, the member of the District's Committee on Ammission, who writes and grades the taxation section, heard what her former Internal Revenue Service colleague had said and aimed the question squarely at him.
"Our feeling is that the word got back to her," said Levine.
The bar examiners go to great lengths to keep the questions a secret. Nigro said they weren't even selected until late this week.