Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2007

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“No one leaves,” remarked the President of the Chamber of Advocates. He explained that during the Brezhnev era he had attended a political meeting, and the party members were told that no one could leave. One party member had stomach problems and wanted to use the restroom, but the directive was that no one leaves. The night after the written bar exams, no one left. In a room at the Republic of Armenia Chamber of Advocates, the 200 tests were scored by the computer company, and we were there until 3:00 a.m. monitoring the process. Nothing happens quickly because state-of-the-art equipment is not available in Armenia. Using one scanner, the 200 answer sheets took several hours to scan. Then, problems arose with the computer program in reading the answer sheets. In the United States, we would leave the IT people to deal with the problem and go home. In Armenia, we sat with the Qualification Commission members and the President of the country’s bar association to ensure that no one’s exam answer sheet was altered. In spite of this, an answer sheet of the wife of one of the Commission members did disappear, but it had already been scanned (she didn’t pass the exam).

The 2007 bar exam is the second in seven years. Only lawyers who have two years of paid legal experience can be candidates to take the exam and be licensed. In Armenia, the career path for law school graduates, who attend four years of undergraduate study in law, is very different. Law graduates can take different exams to become a judge, a prosecutor, an investigator or an advocate. But in order to become a criminal-defense attorney, you have to pass the bar exam for advocates. Also, in order to appeal a civil case to the highest court in Armenia, the Cassation Court, you must be licensed. Otherwise, one can practice in civil cases without a license. Having an advocate in a civil case is very rare.

My role for the American Bar Association (ABA) was to monitor the 2007 exam, which was given to the aforementioned 200 candidates. The exam was computer-generated and computer-scored – a rarity in Armenia. The ABA paid a computer consultant firm to design the program and to produce several variables of the criminal and civil exam. On the day before the exam, the different tests were printed and sealed in boxes and stored in a safe. At 10:30 p.m. on the Friday before the exam, the boxes were placed in a safe and a seal of ABA put on the outside of the safe. Histrionics broke out at that point and a certain advocate railed that the honor of the bar association was being impugned. After a half-hour of listening to this via an interpreter, the ABA staff and I left. The next morning, when we returned to witness the opening of the safe, this seal had been removed. Since our seal was only on the outside, we could not verify if the boxes had been tampered with and copies of the exams distributed.

Next came the exam, a 100 multi-choice exam which the candidates have six hours to complete. After an hour-and-a-half, those candidates who were genuinely prepared for the exam finished and left. The only identification on the answer sheet was a bar code, which made the test anonymous for the first time. The longer the exam went on, the more blatant the cheating became – discussions between candidates, between candidates and the supervisory board, writing on hands, loose sheets of paper in pockets. The bar qualification commission expelled only two candidates. Those who were suspected or found to be cheating can repeat their performance and take the exam next year.

In the middle of the night, while I and others waited for the IT guys to score the answer sheets, the president of the Armenian Bar Association reminisced about the past in Armenia. (He is a former Soviet prosecutor and has survived communism and capitalism.) “It was easier when we had corruption,” he said nostalgically (this was translated for me, and I guessed it was a joke.) Yes, I thought, the results of the bar exam would be decided before the exam due to bribery and we would not be sitting in a room at 2:00 a.m.

Fifty percent of the candidates passed the 2007 exam and will take an oral exam to be scheduled in October 2007. Only yes or no questions will be asked at the oral exam. We will then schedule the swearing-in ceremony and a new group of advocates will be licensed.

Barbara L. Edin is a Maryland attorney working overseas.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October  2007