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Advice from one who failed bar exam 47 times: Try again, again and again

Maxcy Filer
Maxcy Filer never gave up and finally passed the bar exam on his 48th attempt.
Photo by Stephanie Diani

By Diane Curtis

For those 3,940 lawyers who failed last July's bar exam, Maxcy Filer has some advice: Try, try, again. And again and again and again and... Filer speaks from experience. Forty-eight times he sat for the three-day exam in testing rooms from San Francisco to San Diego. Forty-seven times he flunked. Forty-seven times his wife Blondell or one of his seven children, who were given the task of opening all State Bar results mail, informed him that he hadn't passed.

But the 48th time was different. His son Anthony, a lawyer before his father became one, opened the "Dear Admittee" letter and relayed the good news. Now the 73-year-old former Compton city councilman has 13 years of bona fide practice under his belt.

"If they really believe in the law, if they really want to practice law, they've got to go back and take the bar again," said Filer of the lawyers on the wrong side of the bar results list.

"The other thing is, if you really love the law, when you take it, always take it for the first time . . . You motivate yourself in your mind even though you're taking it the 10th time."

Filer doesn't know what, if anything, he did differently on that 48th try in 1991 — almost a quarter century after he first took the exam. "I believed I passed the bar each time. They just didn't pass me." But whatever the reason for passing, he said, he's living proof that persistence pays off. "When I was sworn in, the young man who was an appellate court judge said, 'Three words about Maxcy Filer: perseverance, perseverance, perseverance.'"

Others have estimated that Filer probably spent about $50,000 between 1966 and 1991 on fees, bar review courses and transportation and lodging related to taking the bar exam, and Filer says the figure is probably about right. When he started, he said, a bar review course cost $100. Later, he was paying $1,000.

Today, it's $2,850 for first-timers, $1,500 for repeaters. Filer always stayed in a motel within walking distance of the testing center from the Friday before the start of the multiple-choice and essay exam until the following Thursday.

"I have seven children. I wanted to get some rest before the bar. And I didn't want to be nervous driving to the bar."

Life never stopped during those years studying for the bar, taking the bar exam every February and July and waiting to hear the results in May and November. Filer often held two jobs as he and his wife, a teacher for many years, worked to raise their large family. After Filer got his law degree from now-defunct Van Norman University in Los Angeles, he worked in a variety of jobs related to law, such as law clerk for the city attorney of Los Angeles and field worker for the National Labor Relations Board. It wasn't all about the law, though. He also did heavy lifting at a dairy and took other jobs.

Over the years, all his children went to college, and two of his sons, who were in elementary school when their father started taking the bar exam, became lawyers. Filer worked for his son Kelvin as a law clerk ("I was paid weekly — w-e-a-k-l-y," he jokes "but I loved working for Scooter.") Kelvin (who went to Boalt Hall School of Law and passed the bar on his first try) is now a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles.

Filer has a solo practice in a building he owns — the same building where he was denied service in a bar 50 years ago. "We don't serve Negroes in here," he was told.

Filer's longing to practice law took root during the civil rights movement when it was the lawyers who were making a difference by winning court battles to desegregate schools and parks and banning discrimination in housing and jobs and other public places. His hero was Thurgood Marshall. He helped organize and was president of the Compton chapter of the NAACP. He proudly carried the California flag in the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. He later carried the same flag in King's funeral procession.

On Martin Luther King Day last month, Filer was where he usually is from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week: his law offices a half block from the Compton courthouse. "Talk about perseverance," he said, referring to King. "I honor him every day. I don't wait until his birthday," Filer said. "I have lived (the message of the 'I Have a Dream' speech)."

On that particular day, Filer, a burly six-plus-footer and Arkansas native, was drawing up a brief in a breach of contract suit. "I do everything except probate and banktupcy," he said. And now he gets his own compliments in court rather than hearing from Kelvin that a judge liked a brief Filer had prepared as his son's law clerk.

"I usually live my cases. I do my very best and take it all the way through," said Filer, confirming what then-State Bar President Charles S. Vogel, said about Filer when he passed the bar. "If he tells a client he is going to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court, I'd be inclined to believe it," Vogel said in 1991.

One of the great satisfactions of passing the bar, Filer said, is being able to try cases in court. He said he has no unusual courtroom style. "Be Maxcy — Maxcy, the same guy who used to pick cotton. When I was picking cotton, I would tear out my row and help the other person if need be. Maxcy in the courtroom will carry out his duty and respect the other person."

While he continues his daily practice, Filer also said he has another goal: He wants to challenge laws denying ex-felons the right to vote. He hopes to file a class-action suit in the next six months.

"It's unfair because they have served their time and you're penalizing them for the rest of their life," he said. "It's like taking your citizenship away. Not only that, if you can't vote, you can't ask for redress from Congress, your assemblyman, anyone else."

Now that he is a lawyer, Filer has no plans to stop. "I'm not necessarily trying to catch up, but it took me so long to get here and I love being here, so I come every day . . . My wife says I love the law more than I do her, and," he laughs "she's probably right."

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