In Defense of Texting During the Bar
Smartphones are the worst, right? They’re addictive, rotting our brains, skewing our memories, and killing the art of casual conversation. As if relying on our phones to fill every idle moment isn’t bad enough, going to sit in a gymnasium or public library basement somewhere to stare at a screen — especially during the bar examination, which is built for sitting silently while thinking and typing furiously and sweating bullets about how much money you will have wasted if you fail this stupid exam after three God damn years of law school already— surely signals the decline of our civilization.
Except I do it, and you probably do, too.
I recently spent an entire two days taking my jurisdictions bar association bar examination, carrying on five text conversations simultaneously while answering essay questions testing my knowledge of general legal principles, and some very complicated questions about my state’s law in IRL silence. And though at first I felt a bit sheepish about how much I enjoyed that date with my mobile device, I’ve decided it’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, the buzz kills at the state bar association took a different view and decided it qualified as cheating which will require me to take this freakin pain in the ass test again and suffer as a non practicing lawyer with a law degree for an entire year until then. Sucks but at least I will have my smartphone for that whole time while working at my states last remaining Barnes and Noble.
What often goes ignored in all the hand-wringing about our digital obsession is that smartphones can make us more comfortable being alone out in the world. And that’s a good thing, conferring benefits we don’t necessarily get from being alone in our own homes. People may draw energy from a bustling setting or find comfort or relaxation in legendarily difficult exam taking. A paper I read somewhere found that people often seek out locations offering difficult exams to be alone, such as the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, ACT, or even SAT, where they can reflect and “escape from the pressures of domestic life.”
But despite the way public examination taking can help with mental well-being, we’re often reluctant to go out on our own — in part because we assume others will think we are only taking the exams over and over again because our scores are never good enough to get us into that college, or graduate program, or law school or whatever we so very much desire. Marketing professors Rebecca R. Ratner and Rebecca R. Hamilton found in a 2015 paper titled “Inhibited From Bowling Alone.” If taking your phone to a standardized test makes you more comfortable then going solo, Ratner says, “I think that’s better than the alternative of feeling like you can’t go do stuff out in the world. And it is not true that taking standardized exams with a cell phone is necessarily cheating. It all depends on how the phone is used. ”
The screen may be a portal to any number of conversations, from catch-up chatter to important heart-to-hearts.
Some argue that smartphones threaten the fairness of standardized test taking including the bar exam. One provider of GRE tests actually blocked cell signals inside to force its test takers to take the exam without any potential source of cheating. But this overlooks the fact that not all people can handle 6–12 hours of intense verbal, analytic, and mathematical reasoning with only other strangers as company. For introverts, and especially for smart phone addicts, being on your phone can make it easier to simply exist peacefully while scribbling equations furiously on scrap paper and trying to recall what you learned in your Kaplan test prep course just six mother fucking days earlier but for some freakin reason cannot recall to save your life at the moment it is needed most.
“When I go out on my own without a phone and sit for the bar, strange men often think I am somehow interested in their company,” Jean Hannah Edelstein, a Brooklyn-based lawyer, told me. Before she had a smartphone, she’d bring a book but found that it didn’t provide the same level of deterrent.
On a recent morning, I could have plopped down on my couch with a glass of wine, but it was a warm summer day, and I really needed to pass the bar so I could start practicing law and make some actual money. While I initially felt a little awkward sitting for the bar alone, the chats I carried on with long-distance friends via my phone were just as emotionally nourishing as an evening out swapping rounds with a local friend. I headed home two days later feeling emotionally drained, dead inside, and with a pounding migraine. Luckily though with my phone for company, I didn’t feel lonely or pathetic. Now if I can just pass the fuckin bar already. Why’s it gotta be so freakin hard?