Sunday, March 11, 2007

One of law school's stranger rituals is the MPRE. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam is required by almost every state in order to be admitted to the Bar. This may hearten those of you who are cynical about lawyers and ethics until you understand the methodology and scaling of the test. The test consists of 60 multiple-choice questions, 10 of which are experimental and ungraded, as is common on standardized tests. The score is scaled from 50-150, kind of like the 200-800 of the SAT verbal or math, the 120-180 LSAT, etc. Note that the key feature of this kind of test is that your score doesn't represent a particular number right and wrong, but rather a test-taker's place on a real or hypothetical bell curve. The middle of the range (e.g.: 500 SAT section) in theory represents the median test-taker, and on a well-calibrated test it in fact measures the median test-taker. So, of course, the median score on the MPRE is 100, the midpoint of the 50-150 range. The median MPRE examinee gets a 100.

What score, then, is required for admission to the Bar? Well, it varies from state to state, but this year the highest score required is 86, and the lowest is 75. Yes, in a number of states, the amount of ethics you need to be admitted is akin to the amount of verbal knowledge you need to get a 350 on the SAT. No state requires more ethics than the equivalent of a 420.

If that's not disheartening enough, consider that most MPRE questions are designed with a scenario and four answer choices asking whether or not the scenario is ethical. Two answers will begin "yes, because..." and two will being "no, because..." Almost inevitably, one yes and one no will be patently wrong, but the remaining two choices will be very difficult to choose between. So for most questions on the test, the test-taker can't even be really sure about whether or not something is ethical, let alone why.

So yesterday I had to show up at 9 a.m. at Concordia University--a local school that doesn't take any federal funds so that it can legally discriminate--to take the only ethics exam I will ever be required to take in order be a lawyer. I was picking up a few people, so I got down to my car at about 8:05.

As it has been for a few weeks, my parking lot was a sheet of ice over an inch thick. The melting and unmelting over the last month combined with horrible drainage has led to this joyous condition. I have figured out that if I can't get my car to reverse because I can't get any traction, I can usually put it into drive, go forward a foot or so, and then back out. Unfortunately, even this trick didn't work, and I was stuck.

This was where a wave of the type of inspiration that is so narrowly brilliant and so fundamentally flawed in retrospect came over me. Obviously, the solution was simple: I should put my car into reverse, push it back a couple of feet out of the spot where it was spinning its wheels, and then try again. A problem occurred to me--can I actually push hard enough to move the car? But I decided the only way to find out was to give it a try.

It worked! For a glorious instant, I was extremely proud of myself.

Then I realized that the car was not stopping. I tried to run after it, but that was a losing proposition. I was powerless to stop it. The Toyota parallel parked on our street, however, was not powerless to stop it. Not even a little bit.

Our parking lot has a narrow entry and then widens out, so by the time you get over to where I park, you are not lined up with the driveway opening, but with the curb and with a big tree. The tree is way off to the side, right up against a fence. Then you've got the curb, and cars can parallel park. The road itself is a small, one-lane, one-way street, and on the other side are other houses and other parking lots.

I'm still not entirely sure how the car missed the tree. I really don't know how the open driver's door missed the tree, but I'm really thankful about that part. I'm also really glad the Toyota was there, because otherwise my unoccupied car would have gone right out into the street where it could have hit anything--a car driving down the street, the interminable parade of athletes and band members who use our street as a short-cut to the athletic fields at the bottom of the hill, poorly constructed student housing across the street, etc.

I can't imagine that the Toyota's owner will share my perspective that hitting his or her car was the best that could have been hoped for in the situation; we'll find that out when he or she eventually finds and responds to the note under the windshield wiper.

It's also worth noting that the Toyota is a bit of a junker that had a lot of dings and dents already (the new one, it's true, being the granddaddy of them all), so I didn't destroy some pristine vehicle. In fact it was beat up enough that I had brief thoughts of playing dumb, that maybe they wouldn't notice the new damage amidst all the old, or that even if they did they would have no idea how they got there. Then I realized two things: (1) that you'd be hard-pressed not to figure out where damage came from when it happened while you were parallel parked next to a parking lot, especially when you saw the Honda with rear body damage parked there later on, and (2) I was on the way to an ethics and professional responsibility exam. I left the note.

It's worth mentioning that the Toyota owner would be making the incorrect assumption that the rear body damage on my Civic came from hitting their car--actually my car was unscathed except maybe slightly exacerbating the existing body damage. Not that that's relevant, but it was kind of cool.

It was somewhere in all of that thinking that I moved my car forward away from the accident, realized that my car was fine, hopped out with a combination of anger and relief, and promptly forgot about the inch of ice and fell on my ass, hard. I've been hobbling ever since, but my curling adventure a few weeks ago taught me that this will probably go away in another day or so.

I did make it to the MPRE with plenty of time to spare. Even though every 10 questions or so I drifted off into thinking about the accident and my hip and cursing my landlord and all ice everywhere, I finished with 45 minutes to spare and will be moderately surprised if I get below a 120. California requires a 79. They also don't have icy driveways there.

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