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Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

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Law School

How the California Bar Actually Grades the First Year Law Students’ Exam

fylsx-real-gradingI’ve made a few posts discussing California’s First Year Law Students’ Exam (the “FYLSX”), noting that I failed my first attempt by a fraction of a percent when the Bar applied a grading formula different from that which was advertised, and then, using the knowledge gained of their altered grading scheme, passed on my second try so spectacularly that the Bar published one of my essays as an example of how to write their exam.  I also briefly mentioned that I — as I’m known to do — filed suit to ask a judge to effectively require them to grade like they say they will and be more transparent about the exam and how they grade it.

The particular dispute was that they advertised that the multiple-choice section and the essay section of the exam would be “converted to the same 400-point scale” in order to “give[] these sections equal weight.”  When I received my score report from the first exam, I noticed that the scaling formula used by the bar resulted in it being impossible to score more than about 362 points even if every question was answered correctly, and likewise, it was possible to score far more than 400 points on the essays.

The attorney for the Bar assigned to the case disclosed additional documents, formerly considered to be secret and until now never disclosed to law students, to me yesterday that all but flatly admit that not only were the sections not weighted equally, but they also didn’t use a 400-point scale!  See if you can follow this tortured grading system they describe, because it took me several reads to figure it out:

Multiple-choice raw scores (i.e., number of items answered correctly) were equated to the June 1998, 2011, and October 2013 exams using 21 items that were common to each of these exams.  The equating formula was as follows:

Multiple Choice Scale = (3.4092 x raw multiple-choice score) + 21.6267

The candidates’ raw total essay scores were scaled to a score distribution that had the same mean and standard deviation as their multiple choice scores using the following formula:

Essay Scale = (2.3536 x raw essay total score) + -442.389

A candidate’s total score was the sum of that candidates’ multiple choice and essay scores.

What I gather from this is that 21 of the 100 multiple choice questions were repeats of previous years, and based on how well students did on those 21 questions, their grade on the entire 100 questions was curved.  Then, they calculated the average multiple choice score and the standard deviation, and curved the essay scores such that the average student gets the same score on that section as the multiple choice, and the score distribution was normalized to the same standard deviation.

From this it is clear:

  1. This has nothing to do with a 400-point scale per section.  The number 400 does not even appear in this internal document regarding their grading scheme.  The scale is created simply by comparing this group’s scores to previous scores and trying to curve it accordingly.  You’ll notice that if you plug in “100” as your raw multiple-choice score (a perfect 100 out of 100 questions) into the formula provided, the maximum score attainable is 362.5467.  Not 400.
  2. The sections do not have “equal weight.”  Saying that the average test taker got the same score on both their multiple-choice and their essay questions is not the same thing as saying “half your grade comes from multiple-choice, and half from the essays.”  Whether the essays count more or less than the multiple-choice section depends entirely on how well the other students do on their exams.  This is not equality, it is normalization.

So, for those taking the June 2017 exam, know this: on both exams I sat for, the essays counted far more than the multiple-choice.  You should therefore be spending far more time studying how to write a good essay than how to select A, B, C, or D correctly, unless your multiple-choice practice exams are turning out abysmally (for more study tips, see my previous post).  Hopefully by the October 2017 exam, a judge will have “persuaded” them to abandon this system.

California Bar Posts My Essay as Example of How to Write Exam Answer

fylsx_q2I was pretty excited to be tipped off by one of my law school professors that the California Bar’s “Selected Answers” for the last administration of the First Year Law Students’ Exam were posted and that one of them looked familiar.

Each sitting of the exam, every student writes 4 essays, and out of the thousands written they picked mine for “Selected Answer A” to Question 2 of the October 2016 exam.

Pretty cool considering I’m presently suing the bar over the way they arbitrarily weight the essay sections and multiple-choice sections of the exam differently, despite promising that they don’t, and then refused to provide documents when confronted with a public records request (original post, new amended complaint).  It’s also amazing how 85 out of 100 was apparently the best score on this exam question, further highlighting the absurdity of their grading.  Hopefully I’ll be able to bring some transparency to their grading process so that law students can get an accurate idea of what to study and how their knowledge will be measured.

Nonetheless, I’m glad they like my writing! 🙂

Jon Corbett Available for Legal Assistant / Research / Paralegal

For the entirety of my adult life, my day job has been in technology.  Now in my third year of law school and having written over a thousand pages of federal complaints, motions & oppositions, discovery requests & responses, and appellate documents in my time as a civil rights advocate (most of which have been posted on this blog), I’m looking to begin my transition to doing law professionally.  I’m available to small firms and solo practitioners on either a full or part time basis.  Naturally, a preference for any firm that does civil rights advocacy (Civil Rights Act, Bivens actions, FTCA, ADA, employment discrimination, etc.), but I’m pretty good with contracts, torts, and consumer rights, too.

Please pass to your lawyer friends and contact jon [at] professional-troublemaker [dot] com.

Passing the California First Year Law Students’ Exam, a/k/a The Baby Bar, FYLSX, FYLSE, Your Second Year Nightmare

Last week I got confirmation that I passed (indeed, annihilated) the October 2016 California First Year Law Students’ Exam!

The Exam

For those not in the know, this test, cutely dubbed the “Baby Bar,” is required for all California law students who are not in an ABA-accredited law school. As the ABA, being the grumpy old people that they are, refuses to accredit any online law schools, those like me and want to do law school while having a job (or traveling the world, raising a family, or whatever else makes you happy) are stuck taking the Baby Bar.  The exam is taken after you’ve finished your first year. It is offered every June and October, and you must pass within 3 sittings for the exam (e.g., I finished my first year in November 2015, and therefore was required to pass either June 2016, October 2016, or June 2017). If you don’t pass, your law school studies are over until you do, and when you eventually pass, you can receive law school credit only for your first year.

The exam is 100 multiple choice questions and 4 essay questions, allegedly each representing half your grade, at the same difficulty level as the real Bar Exam. The only difference is that the real Bar Exam tests 12 subjects instead of the 3 on the Baby Bar: criminal law, tort law, and contract law. The nice thing about this is that you can use actual past Bar Exam questions as prep for the Baby Bar. The bad thing about this is the pass rate for the Baby Bar is typically in the range of 20% – 25% — the odds are against you from the start. And, the cost to take the exam including all fees is $777, plus travel to Los Angeles or San Francisco if you’re not local.

My First Attempt

In the spring, I was getting ready for the test and taking practice exams, and from what I could see, my scores were in the passing range. Confident, in June I went to Oakland and sat for the Baby Bar exam, which felt pretty good upon taking it. The exam takes 45 days to grade, and in early August I got my results: failed by 1 percentage point.

I was disappointed and a bit surprised (although with a pass rate of 20% – 25%, not passing the first time is not exactly unexpected), since all the practice exams said that I was doing great on the multiple choice and ok on the essays. When I reviewed the written score report, the answer became clear: the Bar’s curving of the exam effectively made the essays count significantly more than the multiple choice.  My multiple choice received nearly a perfect score, but the bar examiners did not like my essays. This was frustrating since the State Bar specifically published that the sections would be given “equal weight:”

An applicant’s total score on the examination is the sum of an applicant’s converted scores on the multiple-choice and essay sections.  This step gives these sections equal weight in determining the total score.

The State Bar lies!

I tried appealing my grade to the State Bar since it would clearly have been passing had they weighted equally as they had promised, but they wouldn’t hear it.  So, it probably won’t surprise you, if you’re a long-time reader, that I’ll be filing a small lawsuit to get my exam fees back since the exam I was given was not the exam advertised. 🙂  But, I digress…

My Second Attempt

To fix my essay writing, I did two things:

First, during the previous sitting, I hand-wrote the exam rather than typed it.  The Bar charges an extra fee for the “privilege” of typing your exam, and I figured it was better to rely on pen-and-paper and avoid any technical issues that day.  But, quite simply, I can type more words per minute than I can hand-write, and on this exam, you need to be working as fast as possible.  I think if I had typed the June sitting, I probably would have passed (being 1% away from a passing score, pretty much any improvement at all would have made the difference!).  Seriously, do not hand-write this exam!

Second, I spent time going through several past exams, writing out the answers, and comparing them to the model answers that the State Bar published to figure out what I had missed.  This also gets you a feel for how the State Bar likes to see answers presented to them.  There’s a pattern, and it seems that following it may be a good idea. 🙂

The end result was that my multiple choice score stayed about the same, but each essay increased in score by, on average, almost 15 percentage points.  I could have actually written my 4th essay on “why it’s important to advertise the correct scoring methodology when you’re giving exams to law students” and taken a 0 and still passed.  (Actual essay questions for October 2016 FYLSX).

Study Tips

Here’s what I recommend for practice (these products are what I actually used and I receive no compensation for listing them):

1) PMBR Audio Lectures. PMBR is a company that, before they were bought by Kaplan, produced awesome bar review lectures. If it’s not on the Bar Exam (and thus not on the Baby Bar exam), it’s not covered, allowing you to focus on only the material that you need to know. Their criminal, tort, and contract lectures total about 14 hours and are by far the best use of 14 hours spent on reviewing substantive law. The easiest place to find their CDs is on eBay or Amazon.com (search “pmbr contracts audio,” or torts, criminal), as they don’t seem to offer the CDs as a stand-alone product anymore.

2) Fleming’s Baby Bar Review. Prof. Fleming runs one of the very few courses that targets the Baby Bar specifically. He has take-home materials, but for about $300 you can take a 3-day, in-person workshop where you’ll review substantive law, practice writing essays in exam-day conditions, and are given the opportunity to take home 6 practice essays which Fleming’s will grade for you, along with detailed feedback, for no additional charge.

3) AdaptiBar. Adaptibar licenses official Multistate Bar Exam questions from the National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and allows you to practice the multiple choice section on their Web site. The NCBE doesn’t actually write the questions for the Baby Bar, but they are substantially similar. Great for both getting an idea of how you’re doing and for learning what you need to study more of.

4) The Famed 1980 Exam. While the California Bar releases every Baby Bar’s essay questions and answers, they have only released one multiple choice exam ever — from 36 years ago! To be perfectly honest, this is because they are lazy and re-use questions from year to year, so if they released every exam, they’d have to re-write them. But, if you take the 1980 exam as practice and then take the next Baby Bar, it will astonish you how many questions they still re-use with only minor variations. You’d think for $777 per test taker they’d be able to afford to come up with fresh material.

5) Past Essay Exams. Take the questions, write them in an hour each, and compare your answers to the practice answers. They’re showing you exactly how they want it done. Do it that way.

…and finally, make sure you pay the laptop fee and type the exam, and if your typing is slow, learning how to type faster should be a part of your studies (you’ll need that as a lawyer anyway!).

Two Years In at NWCU Law — Updated Review & Tips for New Students

I started law school on November 16th, 2014 at Northwestern California University School of Law, one of the few online law schools thanks to California’s relatively progressive stance on legal education. I wrote a review a few months in, noting that all seemed well so far. Now that I’ve passed my 2nd year final exams in my 4 year, part-time program and thus broken the half way mark, I think an update is well-deserved.

Some thoughts on the experience:

First, if you expected that online law school would be easy, you’ve miscalculated. Each course, taken over the full length of the year, requires about 2,000 pages of reading and comes with several assignments to be completed. At 4 courses per year, you’re looking at about 8,000 pages, or 22 pages per day (roughly an hour — there’s no speed reading law school texts!) if you study 365 days per year. It’s very easy to fall behind, and to be perfectly up-front, about 70% of students who start their first year at NWCU do not make it to their second year. This is an online degree with no required class time, and there is no one there to let you know that you need to pick it up a notch until it is too late. You must pace yourself, as the difficulty of the final exams is on par with the difficulty of Bar Exam questions for the relevant topic, so there’s no softball testing.

Second, although there’s no requirement to attend online classes (you could read your casebooks and outlines and pass, if you learn well by reading), they exist and are useful. You can pick and choose from several time slots that cover the subjects you’re taking, and there’s no requirement to attend every week. Come when you can, no penalty when you can’t. There are also discussion boards for each subject where you can interact with other students. Also not required, but extra credit is given to those who regularly contribute in online classes and in the forum. You want that extra credit — it makes a big difference.

Third, start with the understanding that you don’t know how to write an essay for law school. You can’t simply read the instructions on the midterm or final exams and start typing, expecting to produce the results necessary. This applies even though I know quite well how to write legal briefs in the federal court system: law school writing is a different style altogether. If you want to pass, in my opinion you must complete the “How to Write an Essay” activity that the school offers in the online forums, as well as review passing answers for similar essay questions to get a feel for how they look (see below). This is not required by the school, but it very much should be, because you won’t pass otherwise.

Fourth, the goal of the school during your first year is to prepare you for the California First Year Law Students’ Exam — the “Baby Bar.” The Baby Bar is taken by students in California non-ABA law schools (as every online law school is) who have completed their first year, and you are, essentially, required by the state to pass it within a year and a half of the end of your first year. It is the same difficulty level as the real Bar Exam, but only covers 3 subjects — those you are studying in your first year — instead of 14. The NWCU midterm and final exam questions track the Baby Bar questions fairly well (I’d say the NWCU questions are actually slightly more difficult), and California publishes the essay questions and answers from past Baby Bar exams. The pass rate for the Baby Bar is typically in the range of 20% – 25%, so keep in the back of your mind that you’ve got to not only retain, but enhance, all of your first year knowledge even after you finish your first year, until you take and pass the Baby Bar. (A separate post about the Baby Bar is soon to come…)

So, prospective students: don’t start if you’re not 100% committed, because you will fall behind and waste your time and money when you can’t finish your first year. But, if you can stay on top of things, NWCU is the best value in legal education by far: I’ll have a law degree for less than $15,000 total, while traditional schools charge more than that per semester.  Current 1L students: really really learn how to write essays, as that is 100% of your grade at NWCU and roughly 60% of your grade after grade scaling for the Baby Bar. Do the “How to Write an Essay” activity, review past Baby Bar answers, and make sure you write at least one practice essay (while timing yourself — 1 hour!) for each subject. NWCU offers a practice grading service for a really nominal fee, which is very much worth it.

Five Year Anniversary

It’s tough to imagine it’s been 5 years since this journey started, but a quick look back to post #1 shows that I filed my first lawsuit against the TSA on November 16th, 2010.  There are a few things going on:

  1. Tomorrow I take my first year law school final exams!  Very excited. 🙂
  2. My suit against the TSA’s international security interview program is slowly moving forward, as the TSA has finally (10 months and 2 motions later!) filed the “administrative record” that underlines the bases for their decision to implement the program.  More on that coming soon.
  3. My draft legislation to ensure that the TSA can be held accountable when it oversteps its bounds is almost done, at which point I’m going to work on getting some partners on board to submit the bill to Congress.

Thank you for 5 years of support, guys… it’s been awesome. 🙂

My 10 Year Civil Law Anniversary

“How did you get into filing lawsuits?  Like, if I wanted to sue the government, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

When I first filed suit against the TSA, almost 5 years ago now, I had a little bit of experience. Ten years ago this month, a collection agency ignored me when I told them I didn’t owe any money, proceeding instead to put a disputed account on my credit report.  So, I looked into what my options were, and found out that there are a lot of federal laws surrounding third-party collection of debts.  Collection agencies have to provide some very specific dispute resolution procedures, represent things honestly, and avoid abusive practices.  These laws, found mostly in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 USC § 1692 prohibit things like:

  • Threatening to take an action that it can’t, or doesn’t plan to, take (even “we’ll take you to court if you don’t pay” is illegal if they don’t have any plans to actually sue)
  • Pretending to be an attorney
  • Communicating false information (e.g., to a credit reporting agency)
  • Failing to communicate that a debt is disputed when it is
  • Calling before 8 AM or after 9 PM
  • Repeatedly calling with intent to annoy
  • Sending letters with markings on the outside (e.g., “DEADBEAT”) to embarass you into paying

15 USC § 1692(c) – (f).  They also require notice to be sent in writing with a disclosure of the right to dispute and receive verification of the debt from the original creditor.  § 1692(g).

And so, I filed Corbett v. GC Services, Inc., 05-CV-7680 [PACER subscription required] (S.D.N.Y., Aug. 31, 2005), alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act for not complying with a bunch of the rules above.  I looked up what other lawsuits looked like and wrote my own styled in the same way.  I reviewed the rules of the court.  Then I went down and paid a $250 filing fee (a bargain, as the fee is now $400), and I was in.

Justice was truly blind, as the late U.S. District Judge Richard C. Casey entered the courtroom for our first (and only) status conference with a seeing eye dog.  He seemed irritated at everyone, but denied an oral motion by the defendant to change venue and ordered the case to proceed.  G.C. Services ended up settling for an amount that I’m prohibited from disclosing, thus marking my first victory in civil court.

With that experience and a few other similar ones, when 2010 came around and the TSA was demanding to see us naked in order to fly, I was familiar with the federal courts.  Screwing around with asshole debt collectors was fun and profitable, but civil rights advocacy is fulfilling on a whole new level.  My first year of law school is almost complete, and I look forward to all the difference I can make over the decade to come.

Two Months In: A Review of Law School At Northwestern California University

[Edit – You may also be interested in my two-year update…]

In November I announced that I would begin law school at one of California’s part-time, distance learning schools, Northwestern California University School of Law. Nearly two months later, here are my thoughts so far:

First, I’m impressed with the online community that the school has built. Their integrated online platform connects forums, video lectures (both live and recorded), course materials, chat sessions for Q&A, and more, which allows every student and faculty member to meet and engage with each other.

NWCU's Online Platform
NWCU’s Online Platform

I was concerned that not going into a school would mean that I would be essentially “on my own,” but what they’ve got going on more than meets expectations.

Second, I’m impressed with the format and content of the courses. Courses run for a year and four are taken simultaneously. The basic plan for every course is that there are case books (which are, as you might expect, big thick books containing highlights of the important cases relating to a particular area of law), outlines (books that walk you through the legal concepts one must understand for a particular area of law), and supplemental resources that must be read (or listened to, in some cases) over the course period. There are a few assignments to be turned in and graded for each course, and a final exam. After the first year, there is also a state exam to pass (the California “Baby Bar“), and after the fourth and final year, of course, the actual California bar exam.

Given the state tests, there is no room for screwing around. If you haven’t studied enough to bring you to where a first year law student at a full-time law school would be, you’re done. Which brings me to the third point, which is also something I like: the study is very, very self-paced. The assignments are all known to you at the beginning of the course and have pretty generous deadlines, but it’s up to you to keep track of. If you’re the kind of person who can study daily when nothing is due for a couple of months, you’ll be great, but if you don’t and try to leave it all to the last minute, it will be literally impossible. With freedom comes responsibility, and at this point in my life, I appreciate not being micro-managed by professors. Would I have been able to keep on top of my law school game when I was 22? Probably not, and I suspect most of the students at NWCU are not fresh out of college. My work with the TSA is also a distinct advantage in that most of the legal terms, and many of the concepts, are already quite familiar to me. If this were all completely new, I’d have to take things a lot slower.

The verdict: so far, I’m extremely happy with my decision. I’d recommend the program to anyone interested in a law degree, with the caveats that: 1) you have to press yourself forward, without hand-holding, every day for 4 years or you will fail, which may not be for everyone, and 2) if your aspiration is to work at a big law firm, they’ll probably still prefer the “big name school” — but working in a big law firm seems about as pleasant as chewing on broken glass, and there are so many people out there who need representation who, with a little business skill and creativity, you can find on your own.

On This Four Year Anniversary, I’m Excited To Announce…

4th AnniversaryIt’s hard to believe that I’ve been working to roll back government abuse for 4 years, but today marks the anniversary of the filing of my first lawsuit against the TSA and the start of what now seems to be a lifetime passion for civil rights advocacy. With that in mind, to increase my efficacy as an advocate, I’m excited to announce that I am now officially a law student: Northwestern California University School of Law, Class of 2018.

California is one of the very few states to allow law school to be completed online, and NWCU’s 4-year, 100% distance learning law program will allow me to sit for the California bar and thereafter apply to the bars of most, if not all, other states. The tide is turning in favor of law degrees earned via Internet courses, with about a dozen schools offering all-online classes in California, William Mitchell in Minnesota offering a 50% online law degree, and many other schools across the country experimenting with putting at least a portion of their curriculum online. Law school will be a challenge: the time commitment is huge, the drop-out rate is high, and the bar pass rate is low, regardless of whether you attend an on-campus or online school. But if there’s anyone who can make this happen, I’m confident I can, and being able to do coursework while I travel makes this possible. I’ll be blogging about how things go, and today adding a new category, Law School, to the blog.

Tomorrow I’ll be announcing more exciting news, as my second petition for the U.S. Supreme Court’s review gets filed, and I share with you the amicus brief filed by a rights organization in favor of my petition for rehearing en banc before the 11th Circuit.

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