#Barmageddon: When Technology Fails the Bar Exam

“Everyone always wants new things.  Everybody likes new inventions, new technology. People will never be replaced by machines.  In the end, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake. And to me the choice is easy.” – Michael Scott, The Office, Season 4, Episode 2

Maybe Michael Scott was onto something in light of the disaster that struck this past July for aspiring lawyers taking the bar exam on their computers. With over 40,000 test takers using ExamSoft software (which contracts with forty some states to offer laptop use during the bar exam), some paying up to $150 for its one time use, it’s no surprise the resulting outrage when many were unable complete and upload their exams on the eve of the first exam day. The company, ExamSoft, blamed a “processing issue” which apparently was resolved by Wednesday morning. This forced state bar examining entities to extend deadlines, and subjected test takers to an even greater amount of stress the night before the MBE.

Taking to social media — see hashtags #ExamSoft #Bargahzi #Barmageddon — it was immediately clear that the problem was widespread and had a significant impact test takers. In typical fashion, the most outrageous tweets on the topic could be found at Above the Law. Despite the fact that the majority of test takers were able to submit their exams by Wednesday morning, major news outlets had already blown up story, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Fox News, Business Week, and Reuters. The newest developments, which should come as no surprise, since we are dealing with future attorneys, include the filing of class actions lawsuits accusing ExamSoft of causing distress.

This event raises a number of questions:

  • How do we reconcile a disaster of this sort with the movement toward and need for technology in the profession?
  • If we can’t get it right at this initial junction – the moment when law students become attorneys, how can we expect to get it right when it really matters (that’s not to say that the bar exam doesn’t matter)?
  • Might this serve as a wakeup call to attorneys, particularly those entering the practice, that we need to pay more attention to the implementation of technology in law practice?
  • What doesn’t kill [us] makes [us] stronger,” right?

Fortunately, becoming more mainstream are events such as the recent ABA Journal’s and MIT’s legal hackathons in Boston, and institutions aimed to promote technology in the legal profession like Suffolk Law School’s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation. But, hackathons and tech institutes are nothing new, just new to our profession.  And, while we have begun to think about how advances outside of our industry can be applied within, we still lag behind most.

As Richard Susskind argues in his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers, the traditional role of attorney as legal counsel will be few and far between in the not too distant future, with new roles created to handle inevitable technological advances in the profession. It will be incumbent upon this new generation of attorneys to think out of the box, and upon an existing generation of attorneys to embrace and adapt to the changing legal environment.

Look around you when you’re on the train, in court, or waiting for an appointment; how many people are on their smartphones (maybe the easier question is how many people are not using their smartphones)? The world has changed, and with that our profession must change as well.

Feature image: “it business man in network server room have problems” via Shutterstock.

About Heidi Alexander

Heidi Alexander
Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. (@heidialexander) is a Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and provides guidance in implementing new law office technologies. She frequently makes presentations to the legal community and contributes to publications on law practice management and technology. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

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  • Paul Spitz

    I wouldn’t trust a laptop when taking the bar exam even if I had Steve Jobs on one side of me and Bill Gates on the other. Computer hardware and software is still notoriously unreliable, even in 2014.