Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Earthquake disrupts California bar exam [UPDATE: Examiners will consider quake's "possible impact on test scores"]

[UPDATE: A reporter for the National Law Journal, Amanda Bronstad, is working on a story the earthquake's impact on the bar exam, and she's looking for people to interview about it.

If you were taking the bar during the earthquake, and you'd like to talk to Ms. Bronstad for her article, please contact her at 213-620-1204, or at Amanda.bronstad@incisivemedia.com. She's working on the story Tuesday and Wednesday, August 5-6.

Original post below.]

* * * * *

On my post below about this morning's L.A. earthquake, Lisa made an excellent point in comments: it happened smack-dab in the middle of Day 1 of the California Bar Exam!

"Would you like an earthquake with your stress?" asks Rebeccafrog. "The California bar is hard enough without having to take it while the room is shaking!" Indeed.

The two largest test centers are in Century City and Ontario. (Non-laptop exam takers are in Anaheim; "special accomodations" test sites are in downtown L.A. or near LAX, according to this PDF.) Ontario was by far the closest site to the earthquake epicenter. I haven't seen any reports from there yet, but Above The Law has details on what happened in Century City:
When the chandeliers began shaking, some test takers squealed / screamed. The announcer told everyone to remain calm and stay seated. Some people kept typing. I was rebooting to leave anyway. Proctor then shouted: "Don't worry, this happens in California. If you're not from here: welcome. And there will be aftershocks."
Heh. A commenter adds: "Some pieces of the chandeliers on the ballroom fell. Some people freaked out, others kept typing. Some got under their desks. Most (myself included) sat and stared. ... They did not stop the test or give us extra time even though we all lost about 5 minutes (except the crazy gunners who kept typing)."

Another commenter writes: "It was a scary one... felt it pretty strong here in Century City/Los Angeles. Struck towards the end of the third question on the morning part of the bar exam. Most people actually stopped typing for a minute, and weren't sure what to do, but the earthquake was reasonably short (maybe 10 seconds or so). The bar exam is in the basement of Hyatt hotel - there is no way to get out even if you tried. It took a good 20 minutes to leave after the morning session was over. One of the elevators stopped working too (we were told that it needs to be reprogrammed). Overall, not a big deal and thankfully it was towards the end when most folks were done with their bar exam answers anyway."

Here's more, from the mother of a test-taker:
Just talked to Nicholas. I know -- he’s in the middle of taking the California Bar Exam. Seems that he was about ten minutes to the end of the first session when the earthquake hit. Tiles falling from the ceiling. He laughed out loud and then finished the question.
They'll just be finishing up the afternoon session shortly, so I'm sure there will be more war stories coming in soon. (The reports thus far came from test-takers who logged on during their lunch break.)

UPDATE: Thanks to an Instalanche, some of those "war stories" are being posted right here in comments. For example, Jessica writes:
I was taking the exam in Ontario, and we felt a BIG shake--bigger than I've felt in many years, and I've lived in Cali all my life. There are two rooms for testing there, and I was in the smaller (but still massive) room. People pretty much stayed quiet, but there were a few shrieks and murmurs. I grabbed my computer, went under the desk, and kept typing down there for a minute or two. A few others did the same. The proctor came by and told the guy next to me to get up, but I didn't hear it and stayed down for longer than most. I'm not going to risk a concussion!!!

No extra time was given, even though the main announcer/proctor herself narrowly missed being hit by a falling tile. However, in the other room, they got five extra minutes! No fair! If I had that extra time I would have gotten that last issue! The State Bar had better grade the rooms separately or we will be at a big disadvantage just for having a stern proctor.
And here's another Ontario account, from a commenter on Above The Law:
I was taking it at the Ontario site. At first, everyone thought it was just a truck or something. I had my earplugs on, so it was hard to discern at first, but it's not like the Convention Center moves that easily with the simple passing by of a truck. Then the ceiling started to shake and, no joke, pieces of the ceiling started falling down, and dust began to fall on desks. One of the security camera got dislodged and was hanging by a cable. At this point, people were under their tables and most of the non-California ppl were freaked out. Our proctor, though, stayed eerily calm and, when it was over, everyone went back to typing. I don't think we lost more than, say 5 minutes to it, but boy, was it scary!
Blogger Gabriel Malor has posted a full account, also from Ontario -- specifically, from the room that got those five extra minutes:
Today was the first day of the exam. The quake hit with about 30 minutes to go in the morning session. The epicenter was about 11 miles from my test site (in Ontario). There was a loud rumbling and then suddenly the room was swaying. For a few seconds the tables were bumping around and a tile fell from the convention center ceiling. The California-savvy people ducked under their desks almost immediately. The rest of us kinda went, “Daaaawaaah?” Then we ducked under our desks.

You could tell the people who really wanted to pass. They brought their laptops with them under the desks. After maybe a minute, we got back in our seats. The head proctor announced that he would have five extra minutes tacked on to the end of our exam period. People actually clapped.

I was looking around after and I saw a lot of people with shaking hands and distracted looks. I think the first five minutes after the quake were pretty much a waste for everyone. I know I would go on writing and then notice that it just wasn’t quite right. Other people were doing a lot of the same: write something, then delete, delete, delete. I wonder if the graders will be able to tell by the exam answers just when the quake happened.
[UPDATE/CORRECTION(?): Another commenter who took the test in the "lucky" room in Ontario reports that, although the proctor said he was going to give the test-takers an extra five minutes, he ultimately didn't do so:
Just to clear things up a little, I took the exam at the Ontario site and was in the room in which the proctor said we get an extra few minutes. However, when we were told to stop typing, I looked at my watch and we had exactly 3 hours to complete the exam, not 3 hours 5 minutes. If he had given us 5 extra minutes or even a couple extra minutes, I don't think that would've been fair, especially because a lot of people in that room continued to type during the quake.
You'd think the other eyewitnesses would have noticed that they weren't actually given the promised "extra time," but maybe not. Anyway, we report, you decide.]

Meanwhile, it seems the Anaheim Convention Center, the non-laptop site, was evacuated, at least according to one parent's account:
Today was the first of three days of testing for my son Ben in his quest to successfully pass his first try at the California Bar exam after graduating from law school earlier this summer. Today was also, as you may know from the news, the day an earthquake struck Southern California with the epicenter in Chino Hills, not too far from the Anaheim Convention Center where Ben was taking the bar exam! The kind woman who answered my call at the Anaheim Convention Center information line advised me that the building was evacuated immediately after the quake but then everyone returned to resume testing. All's well, she told me, just as she had advised the dozen concerned parents and significant others who had phoned before me.
[UPDATE/CORRECTION(?): Another conflicting report: "Cal bar writer" comments that Anaheim was not evacuated. "The head proctor instructed all to stay seated and calm. The quake shook the sub-ground hall, its concrete pillars, hanging lights, and metal ceiling grid above but nothing seemed to have fallen. It sounded like a freight train, lasted only 10-15 seconds, and happened with about 12 minutes remaining to the morning portion. No extra time was given on the exam." Sounds like they lied to the concerned parents, then! Heh.]

Back to Ontario, here's another second-hand account, from the brother of a test-taker:
My brother called my mom during his break and was laughing about the whole thing. He told her that he kept writing, on account of this shaker being nothing compared to the Northridge earthquake that ravaged our neighborhood and scarred us for life years ago, but then he noticed that there was a light fixture swinging above his head. He ducked.
Finally, here's another blog post looking at the geography of the quake and the exam.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More reports from around the Interwebs:

National Law Journal: "Earthquake doesn't faze law firms, or first day of bar exam." Key quote:
Robert Hawley, deputy executive director of the State Bar of California, said he received no reports of health or safety issues following the earthquake and that some of the buildings were inspected during the break between sessions.

"Any interruption weighs heavily upon the takers," Hawley said. As a result, the State Bar is gathering data on the disruption that, along with reports from experts in psychometrics, will be presented to the committee of bar examiners in order to measure the earthquake's possible impact on test scores.
Athar Khan, another Ontario test-taker, reports:
Yes, we had an earthquake during the bar but fortunately no one was hurt or injured. It happened some time during the third hour. I was running behind on the essay when it started. At first I thought I was just feeling stressed — I was surprised and remember thinking to myself “Am I about to get sick?? I don’t ever get that stressed. This is new.” Then the ceiling lights started shaking and the whole conventional hall started creaking, shaking and ceiling. I looked up and a large beam and an air conditioning duct were rattling together. It still didn’t really sink in because it was so unreal and I had never been in an earthquake until today. Then I saw a lot of people in front of me dive under the tables. That’s when it finally sunk in — “oh… this is an earthquake!” I dove under that table so fast that I was giggling about it under the table. The guy next to me under the table was not amused.

I don’t remember how long we were under there — probably no longer than 20 seconds. Some people just kept on typing. When we came up, and sat back on our seats, it finally sunk in — we had just been in an earthquake. I hate to admit it but I was pretty rattled by the experience and took quite a bit of time for me to ease up. A proctor announced that we would get an extra couple of minutes and everyone applauded. I don’t really know if we ended up getting extra time but I am fairly sure we did. I considered writing something in my exam (e.g. “Pardon my incoherence henceforth because we just had an earthquake”) but then thought that it would serve no purpose other than calling more attention to any flaws in my exam. Besides, if I were reading something like that in an exam, I would think of it as complaining and not accepting responsibility for a hastily written answer. So, I decided not to. I will say however, that although I am not someone who expects any special treatment, just this once if the State Bar decided to be slightly forgiving of whatever I wrote in the last few minutes, I wouldn’t exactly demand that they grade me without any kind of handicap.
Law Law Stud reports that, in Century City, the separate arrival of the faster, weaker P-waves and the slower, stronger S-waves was quite distinct:
There we were, in the Century Plaza Hotel, typing merrily away about implied-in-fact contracts, when the building started to shake. At first we thought it might be a semi rolling by, or the sound of construction. But then the pillars in my testing room began to blur. And this being only the first day of the bar, I knew it wasn't just my eyesight. It had to be an earthquake.

The room shook for a few seconds, then there was a second or two of relative calm, before a second convulsion shook the room. [That would be the S-waves. -ed.] "You've gotta be kidding!" some people started exclaiming. I wondered if I was supposed to duck and cover, but decided instead just to keep typing, especially since there were no emergency announcements. The head proctor spoke at the podium a few seconds after we were sure there were not going to be any aftershocks and used the same reasoning. So 500 or so people kept typing away at their essays.

In the morning, some of us had bemoaned the fact that our testing room was in what seemed to be an old parking lot or storage room of some sort. We envied the other 500 or so people who got the ballroom, with the beautiful chandeliers. As it turned out, a piece fell from one of the chandeliers in the quake, and dropped on the table behind one of my friends, who only then considered doing the duck and roll.

As we gathered after lunch for the afternoon session, one of the bar applicants reported that she and her friends who were taking the exam in Ontario had spoken, and it turned out that they had to ride the quake for more time than those of us in Century City did, because they were closer to the epicenter. Despite Professor Honigsberg's anecdotes during Bar/Bri, the proctors did give the Ontario applicants extra time--all of two minutes.
Another conflicting report about what happened in Ontario! Heh. It's the Fog of Law, I tell ya.

Here's another report from "Doop Doop," titled "so I heard that one year, there was an earthquake during the bar":
A classmate of mine said she hopes something interesting happens at the bar this year. Well, her wish came true. There we are, 1,000 stressed people in a big hall typing away when a rumbling noise started. Most thought it was an airplane coming (including me). I sat for a while thinking the earthquake would end soon, but it didn't. Alas, I had to desert my post and go under the table as everyone else did. The funny thing is, many people continued typing away. It's not like the proctors said "okay, time out." So, many people didn't want to waste time! Some even brought their laptops under the table with them. LOL.

They always tell stories about disasters that happen during the bar exam. They tell us to be prepared for anything. They tell us about people having heart attacks, flooding, and the dreaded power outages! So now, earthquake will be added the list.

Still another report, from Mixed Blessings: "I survived the 5.7 earthquake that made us all duck under the tables but you would not believe how many people popped right back up and kept typing like nothing happened..not to mention the handful that never went under the table. Also notable: the people that took their computers with them under the table."

Rachael Lynch, whose blog is titled Once Upon a Bar Exam, writes: "As long as the ceiling doesn't fall on me while i'm taking the exam, things will be great!"

Erin Davis writes that, in San Diego, at least some people left the room:
The most exciting part of the day ... was the EARTHQUAKE!! As I'm sure you've all heard, California was hit with a 5.4 earthquake this morning. I was furiously typing away when the table started shaking and I got irritated and thought it was smelly-boy bouncing his leg up and down that was shaking the table. Then I realized the whole building was shaking....and then people started freaking out. Smelly-boy and a few others jumped up and ran out of the testing room. Other people pushed their chairs back and contemplated getting under the tables or running away. I looked up and saw some ceiling debris falling, but also saw that I was safely located in the middle between two of the giant, swaying ceiling lights, and figured I was safe, so I just kept typing away. It lasted for probably 7 or 8 seconds, and then abruptly stopped. People were still freaked out and there was a lot of buzz going on around the testing room....and then it was back to work. The Bar Exam doesn't take breaks for earthquakes! (I decided there on the spot though that if there was another, bigger earthquake, i was outta there. If I'm in danger, screw the Bar! I'll live the rest of life as a happy, ALIVE mailwoman or something ;-) ) Since it was pretty dramatic in San Diego, I can only imagine how it was for all the LA bar-takers!

I'm pretty sure I jinxed the earthquake. I was talking to a friend last night about earthquakes and how it would be funny if there was one during the bar exam. Oops. I'll make sure I don't talk to him about tsunamis. The testing location IS right off the water, after all. ;-)
Finally, The Bovina Bloviator writes simply: "Oh. My. God."

P.S. Incidentally, in case any regular readers are wondering, this is my "one longer post" of the week. :) That fact, combined with the ongoing Instalanche, explains why I keep adding "UPDATES" instead of starting a new post.

Incidentally, if you Google "california bar exam earthquake," the top two results are this post and InstaPundit's link to this post. Heh. Take that, ATL! ;)

UPDATE: One final update, via e-mail from Adrian McDonald, who was one of the Ontario students who got hit by a falling tile. He is not at all happy about the State Bar's reaction:
After the quake went from “that must be some big truck” to “holy s**t, wrath of God,” ceiling tiles, as you know, began descending on the test takers below. I understand the head proctor almost got hit, but I failed to notice because one of the tiles actually grazed my right shoulder before landing a couple feet from me (I was at the end of one of the back rows). Thankfully, I was not physically injured. After the shaking stopped, one of the proctors, who must have seen my close call, came over and asked if I was ok. That expression of concern is about the only thing the California State Bar has done right since.

I found the comment by the proctor in LA to be particularly disconcerting. To brush off a 5.4 magnitude quake with a “welcome to California…and there will be aftershocks” comment is patently outrageous. Had he been in Ontario and made that statement, as I was busy brushing debris from the tile off of my shirt, I think I would have lost it and committed a few intentional torts on him…using the large tile laying at my feet as my weapon of choice (perhaps with a parting “there will be aftershocks” comment after his beat down). Lucky for him, he was not in Ontario. But I can’t imagine a comment like that after a quake…as if the actual event was not stressful enough! Those poor test takers having to frantically finish their essay (which in Ontario was contracts) with the added stress that, at any moment, all hell could break loose again? That total disregard for the safety and sanity of freaked out over-stressed test takers is about as low as they can go. Way to lower the bar as we are trying to pass it!

And how ironic that the essay we were working on was a contracts question (duress anyone?) and, even better, the afternoon performance test had us duress specifically. Don’t ya think? In any event, I am not sure what the remedy should be…but there should be one. The reaction of Bar official Robert Hawley did not help. I love the following description of the Bar’s official reaction:

“The State Bar is gathering data on the disruption that, along with reports from experts in psychometrics, will be presented to the committee of bar examiners in order to measure the earthquake's possible impact on test scores.”

What the hell does that even mean? Then there is this zinger directly from Hawley’s own lips, “While it was momentarily unnerving, I've not heard that there was a significant disruption…You can't treat Sally different than Johnny just because one person felt the earthquake more than others.” The f**k you can’t Hawley. The bar has extended many “accommodations” to hundreds of test takers in recent years. Let me get this straight…if I visit a psychiatrist and get on Adderall for ADD I can get an extra hour per session, but those who ride out a significant quake get psychometrics? Johnny Sally what Hawley? Christ, the law we are being tested on rests upon exceptions to exceptions upon exceptions. Hawley, come down to Ontario, sit in the exam room and volunteer to stay seated as about a dozen or so ceiling tiles are allowed to rain down on you. Do that and then, maybe, you can claim such an encounter is not a “significant disruption.” What exactly is a significant disruption? I think many test takers would argue ANY. It’s the Bar Exam. The test itself is, to say the least, a “significant disruption.”

So understand how grating it was to listen to the threats and consequences for the test takers if we violate the copyright of the bar exam. Don’t try and impress upon us, the test takers, of the legal consequences of reproducing test questions while at the same time you, Bar Examiners, negligently disregard the mental health and physical safety of a few thousand future lawyers. In fact, now that I think of it, how stupid are they? Lawsuits anyone?

I have rambled on long enough, but I will say that the wanton disregard for our safety after the quake is just inexcusable. Will more of the ceiling fall? What else came loose? How about some direction for those of us not used to “every day earthquake” universe some of the examiners apparently live in? Duck and cover anyone?
(Emphases added.)

The quote from Hawley, incidentally, comes from this L.A. Times article about the exam and quake, which I hadn't seen previously. See also this Mercury News article:
The earthquake that shook Southern California on Tuesday might have thousands of would-be lawyers shouting, "Objection!"

The first part of the three-day state bar exam was being held when the 5.4-magnitude quake hit, affecting 4,000 to 5,000 test-takers in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Ontario. Now the State Bar of California is considering revising test results if it appears the quake negatively affected test-takers.

"It was a good solid jolt," said Robert Hawley, deputy executive director of the State Bar of California. "It unnerved the test-takers right there at that moment."

After a scheduled two-hour break, they resumed testing in the afternoon. Still, Hawley said, expert test consultants will look at the results and determine whether the earthquake may have disrupted them.

"My guess is that ... it really didn't have a material impact," he said.

If the experts determine the quake affected the test scores, they will recommend adjustments so that all 9,000 test-takers statewide have an even field, Hawley said.
Meanwhile, in comments, two other Ontario test-takers dismiss their colleagues' complaints as so much grievance-mongering. Nick:
I was in the big room in Ontario that supposedly got 5 extra minutes. I'm not sure if we got them or not. I finished and left about 10-15 minutes early. If the exam is graded differently in my room because of the quake, I'm not going to be happy about it. The earthquake only lasted about 20 seconds, there's no reason we should have had any extra time. We had three hours to complete the morning session, a couple minutes either way shouldn't make a difference if you were actually prepared for the exam. With that said, it's definitely a memory I won't forget any time soon.
And David:
I was in the big room in Ontario as well. I'm not sure which is worse -- taking the bar during an earthquake or hearing all the whining about how some of us Got! More! Time!* Honestly, my first thought after feeling the shock (I kept on typing, btw) was how people were going to try to play it to their advantage, and sure enough, they are!

Overall it was no big deal. I'd say some of the more nervous of us were made even more nervous by the quake. However, part of studying for and taking the bar (and being a lawyer) is rolling with the punches. I certainly wasn't going to let a medium-sized earthquake get between and a discussion of restitutionary remedies!

I'd be surprised to find out that the Bar Examiners choose to grade the rooms differently. How could you adjust for something like that? Adding points? Subtracting them? I'd guess that if they grade anything differently, it will be the third essay only (the quake happened with about 15 minutes left in the morning session).

* 3-4 minutes extra by my watch, certainly not five.