This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Summer/Fall 2021 (Vol. 90, Nos. 2–3), pp. 3–4.By Hulett H. Askew
This year we have the honor of celebrating the 90th anniversary of NCBE’s founding in 1931. The growth and development of NCBE has been a remarkable story of which we all can be proud. I became Director of the Georgia Supreme Court Office of Bar Admissions in 1990, and I can attest to the fact that NCBE—as well as the Council of Bar Admission Administrators (CBAA), which was formed in 1975—are very different organizations today than they were when I first joined bar admissions. They were then much smaller in scope and much less well-organized. The collaborative spirit of both members and staff combined with the shared, unparalleled expertise in all areas of bar admissions is truly remarkable.
I am the third NCBE Board of Trustees chair from Georgia. Trammell Vickery, who was chair of the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners in the early 1970s, served as NCBE Board chair from 1977 to 1978. During his early tenure on the NCBE Board, he was deeply involved in the development of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which debuted in 1972 and which Georgia adopted that same year.
Marva Jones Brooks, who was NCBE Board chair from 2005 to 2006, was chair of the Georgia Board in the mid-1990s when the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) debuted in 1997 and was also adopted in Georgia that same year. The Georgia bar exam was changed dramatically during Marva’s tenure on the Georgia Board (raising the cut score from 130 to 135, modernizing the essay grading process, and convincing the Court to eliminate the rule permitting third-year law students to take the February exam, among other changes), with the help of Jane Peterson Smith (NCBE’s director of testing during the 1990s) and Erica Moeser (who started her 23-year term as NCBE president in 1995). Marva chaired the NCBE Board during a time of rapid growth in staff and services.
I have now chaired the NCBE Board during the COVID-19 pandemic (not as exciting, in my mind, as serving during the development of the MBE or the MPT)—something I certainly did not anticipate. I have good company in Sahbra Jacobs of New Jersey, who recently completed her term as chair of the CBAA, and who certainly also did not anticipate serving during a pandemic.
I believe that to be a successful lawyer or judge, you have to be a lifelong learner. I mean that both in the sense of continuing legal education required of lawyers, but also in the lessons that life and experience teach us, including the difficult times. As challenging and distressing as the pandemic has been for all of us, both professionally and personally, we would be remiss if we did not reflect upon it and learn lessons from it.
For instance, I think we learned that Zoom meetings can fill a void and are good for certain things, such as making timely decisions and perhaps substituting for smaller or less urgent meetings. However, they are not good, in my opinion, for inclusive dialogue and do not replace the value of interpersonal relationships built and fostered by in-person gatherings.
The main thing I hope we learned from the pandemic is humility; how wrong we were about understanding what was happening and predicting what was coming next. I learned how vulnerable we all are—to getting sick, to the anxiety of being isolated, to the sense of losing control of events. I learned a lot about myself as a result. I came to understand how much I need other people around me, and to be part of a larger community, in order to be most productive and to benefit from a check on my instincts.
That is where NCBE comes in. Many people have told me how sorry they felt for me that my year as chair was so disrupted by the pandemic. I, on the other hand, felt blessed to be in the position I was in and able to contribute in a way I never anticipated when I was selected to serve on the Board in 2012. It was an honor to serve during this time and to support the efforts made by Judy Gundersen and the NCBE staff to respond to the ever-changing landscape of bar admissions over the last 18 months.
It was also a gift to observe the way that the jurisdictions, with the support of NCBE and the CBAA, responded to the challenges of 2020—challenges that have continued well into 2021. The fact that approximately 38,000 candidates were able to take the “summer” 2020 bar exam (either in July or during one of the three alternative exam opportunities in September and October) and have the opportunity to gain their license to practice law is still amazing to me—a fact that tends to get lost in the understandable tensions surrounding the July 2020 bar exam.
Judy’s decision to recommend to the Board that NCBE offer a remote exam, despite the psychometric challenges presented, was thoughtful and courageous. The NCBE staff’s execution of all the changes necessary for this to work was nothing short of remarkable. The CBAA and its members also deserve great credit for their competence and hard work during this period. Everybody involved responded with great heart and endurance.
Despite the emergencies created by the pandemic, the ongoing work of NCBE continued. I am indebted to the Board of Trustees for being accessible, thoughtful, and totally engaged in our work during this period. NCBE committees continued to meet virtually and respond to their charges. And the productivity of Judge Cindy Martin, who chaired NCBE’s Testing Task Force during this challenging time, is truly outstanding and will put NCBE in a good position for the future.
My favorite quote is from the well-known and highly regarded philosopher, Lily Tomlin: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” I feel very thankful to have been asked to serve on the NCBE Board of Trustees and to have chaired it, because we as a group are not caught up in the rat race. What we do—the Board, the NCBE staff, and the bar admission administrators from across the country—is serve the profession, and ultimately the public, and this is a higher calling than personal gain in reputation or fortune.
I am honored to have been associated with NCBE for the last 31 years, and I am comforted by the knowledge that this organization, its staff, and the Board will continue to meet the challenges ahead as successfully as they have been met over the last few years. NCBE is in excellent hands as it moves into the future.
By the time this message is published, I will have passed the gavel as chair of the Board of Trustees to the able hands of my good friend Sue Richards of Ohio, who will inherit a well-functioning staff and an engaged Board. It is bound to be an exciting year under Sue’s leadership as NCBE continues to fulfill its mission and serve the public and the jurisdictions in the all-important process of bar admissions.
Keep the faith.
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