I first got the desire (can one actually call it that?) to take the California Bar Exam over a year ago. It was the middle of March, and cold as usual in Chicago when I headed west to visit some blog friends. The sunny, warm weather really worked to lift my spirits, and I realized that perhaps the best thing I could do long-term was to head west to SoCal.
But that's the funny thing about law school - you're pretty much tied into the state where you're attending classes. Many states - Illinois included - begin the whole bar process in your first year, when you fill out morals applications, or if you're in California and attending a non-ABA-accredited school, take the so-called 'Baby Bar'. Attending law school in one state and taking another's bar takes some planning, and I hadn't done that.
So I was tied to taking the Illinois Bar first. And since I was graduating in May, I'd be taking the July exam. The earliest I could take the California Bar would be in February. That became the plan.
Once I'd finished the Illinois Bar, I went to the California website to see when I could sign up for the February bar, and - gulp - how much it would cost. Turns out I couldn't sign up before October 1st, which was disappointing, but that the cost appeared to be less than the Illinois Bar, which was encouraging.
That turned out not to be the case. The first hurdle came when I tried to beat the October 31 timely filing deadline. Since I'd graduated from law school and had taken another state's bar, I didn't qualify as a 'student' for bar exam purposes. I had to register as an attorney. The difference wasn't all that major; instead of getting a Letter of Qualification from my law school dean (as I had to do for Illinois), I needed to get a Letter of Good Standing from the State of Illinois. And therein lay the hurdle: I had passed the bar exam, but I hadn't been admitted to the state bar yet.
Illinois, like many states, does not grant automatic admission upon passing the state bar. There's the MPRE results, which most people have long since submitted by the time they take the bar, and the morals application (or Character & Fitness, as Illnois calls it). Once those items are received - and C&F can take several months - and once you pass the bar exam, you get admitted. Even then, Illinois does not admit people prior to the scheduled Mass Admission date, which is whenever the Supreme Court can put it on its calendar, but generally a month after the results are published.
And since the results aren't published before October 1st, I couldn't be admitted before October 31st. Which meant I'd get stuck with a late fee. I wanted to keep costs down, so I tried to back door into the process - promising I'd send the info just as soon as I could, but California was having none of it. Even worse, I found this out while I was in, of all places, California.
A few phone calls and FedExes later, and I thought I was all set, with a couple of days to spare. But I was wrong. Although my FedEx TO Illnois, requesting the letter was received, no one did anything with it; it was Thanksgiving week, and the regular person was on vacation. Her backups let it sit on her desk until she returned the following Monday. Only a lucky call to California to verify everything was OK prevented me from getting hit with an additional $250 in late fees.
As luck would have it, I got my official letter from California saying I was registered for the February exam on November 30th. And on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that day was an article on how Stanford's Constitutional Law guru had recently taken the California bar exam - and failed. It didn't give me a good feeling.