July 24, 2006

Law school helps graduates prepare for bar exam

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- For the last eight weeks, Brynna L. Themas and other recent Southern Illinois University Carbondale law school graduates found themselves alternating between confidence and nervousness.

Themas and other SIU School of Law graduates spent the time studying for this week's Illinois Bar Exam. The two-day exam consists of multiple choice and essay problems and takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, July 25-26, in Chicago.

After noticing a nationwide drop in bar exam passing rates in the mid-1990s, SIU was among the first law schools in the nation to offer additional bar exam preparation – including workshops and simulated essay exams.

"We were one of those who said we should be doing something more for our students," said assistant professor Suzanne J. Schmitz, coordinator of the law school's academic success program. The program is part of the law school's academic enhancement program.

The free workshops are in addition to a private, commercially run bar review course that graduates pay to attend. The writing essay workshops are on topics covered by the commercial course. Graduates do not need to participate in the commercial bar review course to participate in the free workshops.

Themas, who is from Canton, earned her law degree in May, and graduated in the top 10 of her class. The workshops are significant, she said, but equally as important is the attention by professors who continue to provide insight and suggestions on essays or respond to graduates' questions.

Themas has friends who attend other law schools where they don't receive that kind of attention, she said.

"Here, they're around and they're available. It's like a security blanket almost," said Themas, whose husband and father are attorneys. She will begin working in September at a litigation defense firm in Edwardsville.

"During the summer there are two of us here who read essays almost every day," Schmitz said, also referring to clinical associate professor of law Melissa J. Marlow. "We encourage students to come in and bring us their essays. We look at them and give them feedback on whether they are on the right track.

"We have other professors who answer (graduates') questions and give presentations," she said. That includes students studying on their own away from the Carbondale campus who correspond by email and telephone.

There are two practice essay exams where graduates replicate the bar exam experience and have 28 minutes to read, analyze, organize and write each of 10 essays. That is much different than in law school where you have three essays to write in four hours, Themas said.

The exercises help students "reshape their exam-writing skills into a method that will be more appropriate for the bar exam," Schmitz said. "That takes a bit of practice; you don't just do it."

About 70 graduates participated in the workshops at the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building. Off-campus graduates participate via a blog, where the workshops were digitized and posted within 48 hours. Graduates also email professors with questions and have their essays reviewed.

While the private commercial course provides a recommended study schedule, the workshops also feature recent law school graduates who faced a variety of real-life circumstances while preparing for the bar exam. It allows those now studying to see there is no "one method," Schmitz said. One speaker was a recent graduate who had just gotten married, another a student with children, and another student who was in the midst of planning a wedding.

"I think that helps them feel relieved that they won't have to follow the … schedule … but then also feel a responsibility to design what will work for them," Schmitz said. "I try to bring in people who will identify with somebody in that room."

Schmitz also meets in the fall with every third-year law school student to ask about their plans for the bar exam. By trying to get students to begin thinking through issues in September and October the hope is students develop a plan for associated costs and living issues.

SIUC's pass rate for first-time Illinois Bar Exam test takers in July 2005 was 87 percent, above the state average of 86 percent. In February, all 19 of SIUC's law school graduates taking the test for the first time passed, compared with 83 percent of first-time takers statewide.

The individualized attention is one reason why Themas, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and English literature from Knox College, chose SIUC.

"You get that one-on-one attention that you don't get at a lot of other law schools when there are 300 people in the class," she said. "I this is really helpful because it continues; that one-on-one attention where I can go to Professor Schmitz if I am really feeling overwhelmed."

Schmitz acknowledges the exam is a high-stakes exercise. Students who fail now must wait until February to take the exam again and that could mean losing a job and a significant amount of income, she said.

For Themas, the interaction with faculty, staff and other students is a key to the school's success.

"The students are very much a community and everybody is working together to help each other out," she said. "I really like that. I came from a small, private college and a small high school so it's kind of the same feeling."

Offering progressive graduate and professional education that enables students to perform at their optimum level and prepares them for distinguished careers is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Photo by Russell Bailey

Bar Exam

Listening closely – Brynna

L. Themas (right) listens
intently as Suzanne J.
Schmitz, an assistant
professor and coordinator
of Southern Illinois
University Carbondale’s
law school academic
success program, discusses
the upcoming Illinois Bar
exam. Themas, who is from
Canton and who graduated
from the SIU School of Law
in May, is taking the two
-day bar exam beginning
Tuesday, July 25, in
Chicago. SIUC’s law
school was among the
first in the nation to
offer additional bar exam
preparation. Download
Photo Here