Colorado Supreme Court

Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.

Q&A with Susan Gleeson

The Director of Examinations discusses the bar exam’s evolution, computer glitches and stuffed animal mascots.


Winter 2014

You might not recognize Susan Gleeson’s face. But if you’re a Colorado attorney, you might remember her voice. The Director of Examinations has administered the state’s bar exam since 1982. When she delivers instructions over the loud speaker to examinees at the February bar examination, it will be her 65th exam.

Which is to say that she’s seen a lot. Gleeson sat down earlier this year to talk about the intensity of the exam and how it’s changed over the years, about the strange objects people used to bring with them to their test table, and about what advice she has for test-takers.

Along with planning the test, you are also the voice of the bar exam. I’ve heard you a few times. You sound very soothing, even comforting.

It’s the mother in me. (Laughs) I turn on my mother voice. The examinees are extremely intense. They’ve been locked up for six months studying, and this is their entire career. It’s very important that we give an air of confidence so that they will be calm. If they see that we’re stressed, that creates more stress.

I remember watching Jim Coyle (Regulation Counsel) walk through the convention center yelling to lines of waiting examinees, “If you’re here for the beer festival, you’re a few days early!” That got some laughs.

Yes, things like that. I like to tell the examinees, “Welcome to the 2014 bar exam. If you’re not a bar exam candidate, you should not be here.” We want to let them know we’re not the gestapo. We want them to be as relaxed as possible

How has the exam changed since you’ve been in charge?

In all sorts of ways. In the 80s we had two test components: essays and multiple-choice. We had 18 essays at one point. The performance test was adopted in 1989, which added a third component to the exam. The essays have been whittled down over the year. Now, with the recent adoption of the Unified Bar Exam, we have six essays and two performance tests.

Why the reduction in the number of essays?

Well 18 essays is excessive, for one. Also, essays test for minimum competency, but they don’t demonstrate how good of a lawyer you’ll be. An essay tests your ability to memorize facts and regurgitate them. As a testing product, the performance test gauges a person’s ability to be a lawyer. Can they identify relevant facts among fluff? How well can they communicate that to a client?

That’s the same reasoning behind the new holistic grading.

Yes, with the old method, graders looked for the examinees to identify particular legal issues in an answer. Essentially, if the applicant hit the right buzz words, they got the points. But there wasn’t a focus on the quality of writing, on comprehension of the legal theory. Holistic grading is a global assessment of the answer. You’ve got to hit the points, but you’ve also got to be able to construct a cohesive paragraph and demonstrate that you can communicate effectively to the court and to a client.

You’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now. You must have seen some … well, some interesting things in your time.

There was this poor girl once who got herself worked up into such a tizzy before the test that she was sobbing and had to call her boyfriend to come pick her up. I once found a pair of clean boxers behind a toilet at the site. We never found out what that was about. We’ve had other instances, too. We had a woman who got the blue screen of death at the end of the essay day. We had to send her whole computer to the laptop vendor, and they retrieved her answer files.

Did she pass?

She passed and was so relieved.

Wait, so what does happen if someone has a technical problem with their laptop?

We try to have contingency plans for everything, so we have extra test booklets and packets for writing, and that person would start writing. That said, we’ve never lost a test taken on the laptop.

When I observed the exam, what struck me was that it’s such a controlled environment.

It has to be exactly as we plan it. There’s so much riding on the exam. Most often it goes off without a hitch, but sometimes things go wrong. My philosophy is that if we have the physical space, the tables set up correctly, and the test materials in place, then we can administer the test. We got the boxes, we got the books, we got the site. Anything else we can deal with.

What’s the weirdest thing someone’s tried to bring into the testing room?

Before we had lists of items they couldn’t bring, examinees would bring little stuffed animals, like mascots. One guy brought a wind-up alarm clock, the kind that ticks on every second. That didn’t go over well. Years ago, we had a woman who brought a framed picture of Perry Mason. (Laughs) She had it on a little stand and took the test with Perry Mason looking at her.

What’s the best advice you can give examinees?

A couple things. If they are using a laptop to take the exam, they should make sure they are familiar with it. You don’t want to open a borrowed laptop for the first time on the day of the exam only to learn that it doesn’t support the program needed.

Also, it sounds obvious, but they need to follow instructions. They should read the instructions before they show up. There is a comprehensive list of things they can’t bring, and people invariably don’t read it. And they should listen to the instructions at the test site. People don’t listen and then think we’ll fix something they mess up. If they recognize that it’s their exam and their career and their responsibility to do things right, then they’ll be fine.

James Carlson is the Information Resources Coordinator with the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. If you have an idea for the OARC Update, contact him at