Virtue & Mischief: Passing the test


Today I drive to Columbus to observe the swearing-in ceremony of those fortunate, bright, and hard-working folks who passed the July administration of the Ohio Bar Exam. It is a joyous occasion.

I will applaud and hug and laugh and take pictures of the newly minted attorneys with assorted significant others. I will listen to congratulatory speeches welcoming this crop of legal counselors to the profession, and hear stories—most of them of the “horror” variety, no doubt—about this summer’s test administration. I will celebrate with the victors, and think of (and pray for) the vanquished.

And I will recall my own intense brush with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in October 1997 as I awaited the news of whether I had passed Missouri’s Bar Exam. My fellow first-year attorneys at the law firm of Blackwell Sanders in Kansas City had been informed via an email message that the exam results were being sent via regular mail. The email informed us that the letters had been sent such that we would likely receive our good or bad news by that upcoming Friday’s mail. The message added that if we did not receive our letter in Friday’s mail we could call a provided toll-free number and speak to a representative to learn whether we had passed or failed.

Friday arrived and my first-year peers and I, sleep-deprived and intensely nervous, trudged into our offices. The managing partner sent us word that, given that our individual and collective anxiety levels had rendered us useless (or worse), we were permitted to take the rest of the day off, go home and collect our mail, and celebrate the assumed good news at the such-and-such watering hole in the plaza section of town. I made a bee-line for the parking garage, sped home like Parnelli Jones on the straight-away at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and checked my mailbox. Nothing.

An hour later I heard the tell-tale sounds of the apartment house’s squeaking mail boxes being opened and closed. I opened my apartment door, looked down the staircase, and spotted the mailman discharging his duties. The eagle had landed, as they say. When I heard the entryway door slam shut a minute later, signaling his departure, I sprinted from my third-floor apartment down to the landing. I searched my mail for something from the Supreme Court of Missouri, but to no avail. Nothing but a couple of bills and advertisements. Oy!

By now word had spread that my peers had all passed and were congregating for a long afternoon and evening of merriment and celebration. I was alone in my downtown apartment, staring at my phone, willing my fingers to dial the toll-free number that had been provided for just this circumstance. Like a man playing Russian roulette and preparing to pull the trigger, my heart raced. My hands shook. My voice quivered.

“Good Afternoon, the Supreme Court of Missouri.”

“Yes, ma’am. I took the July bar exam, and I was informed I could call this number to learn my results since I didn’t receive a letter today… a letter, you know, telling me whether I’d passed or failed?”

“Yes, of course. I understand. I have the list in front of me. What’s your last name?”

“Swensen, ma’am. Thank you.”

I sincerely thought I was going to have a heart attack or, if I was very fortunate, merely faint and suffer a concussion from the fall. I could hear the shuffling of papers and the disturbingly ambiguous vocalization “Mmmmmmmmmmmm…..” Before she could provide me the news of my fate—an empty chamber or a bullet to the brain—I told myself to be cool, no matter what. No whooping in response to good news. No cracking voice or sobs in response to bad.

“Mr. Swensen?”


“I’m so sorry. I really am. I’m sure you’ll make it next time. Be sure to reapply in a timely fashion, okay?” I bent down to my knees and tried to gather oxygen. I placed my right palm on my forehead and contemplated how I would inform my bosses, my peers, my parents. I wanted the mouth of the earth to open and swallow me whole, my body and soul to be consumed by Sheol. I had failed.

“Wait a second. Sir, how do you spell your last name?”

“Huh?” I stuttered momentarily. I was still contemplating how, after all the time and sweat and tears and dollars spent on law school and the bar prep course—at the semi-advanced age of 36, mind you—I was going to face my new future as a participant in the food service industry.

“How do you spell your last name? We have a few people with a similar last name. How do you spell yours?”

“S-W-E-N-S-E-N,” I announced, placing a special emphasis on the second “E” since that is somewhat unusual, the distinctly Norwegian version denoting “the son of Sven.”

“Ahhh! You’re Timothy?”

“I am.”

“Okay. Got it. I’m so sorry about that little scare, Mr. Swensen. You passed. Congratulations!”

Little scare? LITTLE SCARE?! “Oh, great. Yeah. Whew.” I checked my pants to see if I’d soiled myself. I jumped up and down and pumped my fist and silently screamed the words “YESYESYESYES” like I was Anthony Rizzo clutching the final out to secure a World Series victory. “Thanks very much, ma’am. Have a great day.”

“You, too, Tim. And congratulations again. We’ll see you at the swearing-in ceremony, yes?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll be there,” I replied in my finest faux-calm-and-collected-tone. I replaced the receiver and realized (a) that I now knew, at least to some degree, the emotions associated with failing the bar exam, and (b) that my capacity for empathy is severely limited; I was so elated to learn that I had passed that in that moment I gave only a passing whiff of a thought for the poor Swenson fellow who did not.

With the benefit of time and a little perspective, I am able to hope he’s happy and successful. I hope he’s fulfilled in his life and his work. I hope his family is thriving. I hope the teams he roots for are winning. I hope his home is a haven of peace and joy. And I hope he is a member in good standing with the Missouri Bar.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue and Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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