A potential lawyer’s chronicle: passing the bar examination on the first attempt with no sight. 

When the results were announced, my universe filled with beautiful colours. With a hand pressed to my chest, I slowly breathe out, releasing the pressure I had accumulated during the past few weeks. I had just got a ticket for my dream profession. A good thing I was sitting because everything was spinning around me. I felt an indescribable sensation of freedom as if I had run my best marathon, win my most tough match, swam my longest distance, pushed back the barriers as far as I’ve ever done before. I’ve done my most beautiful travel, written the most beautiful page of my life, reaching the stars. Only a tiny circle of people know what I have gone through to manage it. So to thank them and to pass the torch to future candidates, with or without sight, I decided to broadcast this experiment.

In France the examination to become a lawyer represents the end of the law studies and the entrance to the bar school, and for most of student passing this examination is like finding the Grail because it gives them access to the profession. This examination can be taken at least after a law master degree, but only 15 percent of student pass it. It comprises two parts. The first one is divided into four written exams where the student has to play the role of a lawyer and advise a potential client in a written essay. When you pass this first part, it allows you to get to the admission exam. This second part is divided into two different exams, an oral exam on languages and a great oral of 45 minutes on fundamental rights with a lawyer, a magistrate and a law doctor. This oral exam is the masterpiece of the entrance exam. If you pass it, you can enter the bar school where you have 6 months training, 6 months of internships in a juridical structure, and 6 months in a lawyer’s firm. After that, you can take the oath to become a lawyer. However, students passing the entering exam from the first time are very rare and you have only three attempts.

So anyone taking the brave decision of signing up for this entering exam has to be courageous and determined. For me, however, this exam was even more difficult because in France you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of lawyers with a disability. I thought that maybe the profession was hostile to diversity. But that is true that the bar exam has difficulties that even reasonable adjustments can’t remove. Maybe that is why I took so long to decide to go for it. I had the required level to pass it for three or four years now, and my life had been rather intent because I always had the feeling to have to work 10 times more than anyone else to prove that I could do the same things as them.

First, I pass my law undergrad in Lyon, but I was in Erasmus in Barcelona for the last year. Then, because I found this year in Spain wonderful, I took a six months break to do a humanitarian mission in Fiji where I improved my English. It was then I realised I wanted to go towards a legal international career. Thus, I started a master in international and European law at Geneva University. When I was staying in this city, I interned with the UN. It was during the Gaza war in Summer 2014. I was a little disappointed because of the difference between the reality and the diplomatic slowness and inefficiency. So, I decided to get more knowledge about the rules concerning armed conflicts.

I had the occasion to do so two weeks later when I went to Canada for an university exchange programme for a year. My attraction for the humanitarian right push me to get even more knowledge about conflict resolution. So I did a second master at the University for peace this time, in Costa Rica. After my studies, I worked for a year in a pacifist community located between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. The inhabitants of the community were Jews and Arabs. They decided to live together in peace to show the world it was possible. I also volunteered to give lectures on leadership and speaking skills in public, in a Palestinian university. I hoped to inspire other young people whose dreams were limited by barriers, to go forward no matter what.

However, even if it was the best experience I ever had, I must say that after that I didn’t know what to do with my professional life. I was doing high level sport and I also wanted to have a writing career. I must admit that after all I have done I thought I did all I could to be easily recruited by an international Human Rights NGO. But Reality caught up with me. When you have a disability, people tend to see you through what you can’t do rather than what you can do. And whatever one does, even things that people without disability would never do, you are still being seen through your disability, and when time comes to find a job, it’s the sidereal void. The UN, the ICRC, Human rights watch, or even the French government where I tried twice the diplomatic exam, there are no room for disabled people except to fill quotas.

So, it was during this time of retreat that I wrote chronicles about my life that I would like to publish soon. The world of publishing is not tender either. But I will wait and seize opportunities. And as I put the final touch to my book, I was finishing my registration for the bar exam.

Being often the one who says out loud what other people think, and being the one who gets outraged when there is an unfairness, and moreover desiring more than ever to be self-employed, I went back to my initial vocation lawyer. But for becoming one I would need to fight again because people often judge a fish for its flying capacity, and a dove for its tree climbing skills. The languages I had learnt to speak perfectly during my travels, my enriching experiences in middle-east, Costa Rica, or in Canada, and my finisher medal in New-York Marathon, or the recently developed passion for parachute jumping, all these were useless to me now. I always liked strong sensations, learning during my travels and through my different experiences of the world, rather than reading theoretical books. I went back again in a system where I felt out of place. Everything had been self-doubting; anger toward lecturers who reminded us all the time how bad we were, compassion for the students who preferred to work on their own in order to pass, and the need to manage despite of all problems.

As usual, most of the pedagogic advice given by the lecturers didn’t work for me. In order to study, I use a normal laptop on which a screen reader is installed. This software reads out loud what is on the screen. I know the keyboard by heart so I can take notes and write for my exams without problem. I can also access the Internet for my research, provided the websites are accessible and don’t have interactive or visual  informations. Also, I need to have the document in an electronic format so I can read it with my screen reader. I can also connect a Braille note-taker to my laptop and what is on the screen appears simultaneously in Braille on the device which is necessary for the correction of my typos. The audio only is not enough to know if a letter is missing or if there is a grammar mistake. It is also necessary to know that Braille display only give maximum forty letters at a time on one line, so the reading is slower than for someone with sight. It would be as if someone with sight had a laptop with a screen which could only have ten words at a time.

So, of course, paper documents are useless for me, including the huge reference books in law that students need to manipulate during the exams. According to the lecturers, we had almost to be in osmosis with the civil code, as if it was attached to the model student’s hand. According to them, the candidate who would pass the exam wouldn’t be the most knowledgeable one but the quicker searcher with the books. Glory to the student who, as a good law worker, would be able to work from the articles in the books and the jurisprudence that his quickness would allow him to find. Not being able to read in the codebook, I felt a little excluded by this way of seeing the exam and I didn’t know how to apprehend it.

Normally, I would use the legal database online. And on the day of the exam, it would be someone else who would do all the research for me. What stressed me the most, was the fact that the person who would help me would only be designated a few weeks before the exam. It would be during the Summer, so I wouldn’t be able to meet them until the day before the exam because the university would be closed during the summer. Moreover, the recruited person would be a student and not a law professional or someone having already pass the exam. However, the programme for this exam is very specific, so my would-be helper would have to do research in parts of the civil and criminal code books they wouldn’t have looked at before. Since I would not have worked with them before the exam day, I didn’t know how to tell them the information I needed them to research. I think what would have been fair would have been that the student followed the courses with me and that we would work together for the preparation of the exam.

There was also the scary synthesis exam, the most feared of the written part because it was the one whose marks counted most and it was based on the same capacities for everyone with sight or not. It is a forty pages texts corpus that must be summarised in four pages. The difficulty of the exercise rests on the limited time and number of pages. For this exercise one needs to read attentively the documents while skimming them. This exercise is not adapted for people without sight. When I was practicing at home, I never managed to finish in the limited time in spite of the additional time I would have for the exam. It is true to say that for every candidate the limited time is the main difficulty of this exam. But with sight a candidate can find easily the most important paragraph, and the note taking is easier.

Thus, I had to start a long battle with the Disability Service of the university to be able to get the necessary adjustments. It appeared that an additional time and adapting my subject in electronic format was not enough. And it was then more than ever that I realised it was difficult to address inequalities when they are structural. The university as an institution could provide me everything I was entitled to, but there was a grey zone between its means and the exam structure.

At the beginning I even didn’t have a Braille computer, which is necessary as explained above.

This kind of device costs about $10000 and the French state only funds 2800 towards it. So, on this particular point I can only say a big thank you to the association “les amis des aveugles” (the friends of the blinds), for having given me financial help to buy what I needed. They were very quick and discrete and they did it very simply. After that, I had to ask the right questions again. I also had to anticipate things as much as I could. But I didn’t have any reference to guide me. It seemed I was the first visual impaired student to pass this exam in Lyon. Why should I be always the pioneer every time I was doing something that everyone should have the right to do without any difficulty?

Spring arrived and I was telling myself that it was madness, that maybe I should take another year to prepare for the exam. Around me a lot of students had enrolled into private law schools to optimise their chances. Those private schools offer a maximum tuition and guidance and also include an intensive summer preparation. Those schools are extremely expensive (around 2000 dollars). Sometimes even if one have the most determined mindset in the world it is not enough. One have to have the financial means to do what one want.

It was at this moment that I came across an equality programme which finance for some students with an undergrad distinction the cost of an intensive summer course. So I applied. A few weeks later, I learnt that I was accepted. I couldn’t believe my luck. First, I had the grant for my Braille computer and one for a private law school. I couldn’t fail.

And then summer arrived. I started the summer intensive training. There was a very good atmosphere with the lecturers, much nicer than at the university, and I got along very well with the other students. For once I had the feeling we were all on the same boat. The class was full of solidarity, laughter and self-derision about what we could have done over the summer instead of being stuck inside a classroom. After the group revision session we imposed on ourselves, we spent a lot of time rebuilding the world and some evenings around a good beer. But it was well deserved, and I think it was those little breaks that made the difference for me.

Finally, the feared day arrived. First it was the synthesis exercise. I went into the exam room with my stomach in knots. I was thinking of all the people who had supported me and that I would disappoint if I fail; the association who paid for my equipment, the training centre where I followed the intensive formation over the summer, as well as the disability service who also had helped me a lot and my friends. Being the only member of my family who had undertaken higher education, I think I was coming from very far away. The day before I had at last meet Lilia, the student who would help me. My biggest fear had been that in spite of all her efforts, she wouldn’t be able to help me. Because it is hard to establish a working method with someone we don’t know. Especially when the goals are so important. Once again I think that Mars aligned with Neptune and Pluto to form my lucky star.

We took the exams one at a time. I thank Lilia for her calmness and the nice food she was sharing with me before every exam. I remember that after each exam I had a feeling of plenitude and of exhaustion, sure to have done the best I could. But this feeling disappeared when I was seeing the other candidates’ answers on the exam forums. I must say that even though from this point I banished the social medias they had been very useful during the exam preparation. Some lecturers shared useful articles and videos and took the time to explain very complicated things seen in class very simply.

At the end of the week I finished the last written exam thinking that the past week would have a huge impact on my destiny. Every body knew that only a quarter of the students would pass. For two or three weeks I completely forgot about those exams and did things I had not the time to do for a while, like writing, running and seeing my friends. Then the day of the results arrived. I didn’t expect to have passed. Knowing that if I failed, I would fall from the highest of my dreams and hopes. But as incredible as it can seem, I manage to have a pass at all the written exams!

So now I had to concentrate on the oral part of the exam. In two weeks I would sit for the English test. And in a month I would seat for the great oral exam. In terms of adjustment, the English test had not been difficult. I had fifteen minute to prepare an article and after that I had to talk about it before a lecturer. She had been astonished I could do my presentation from memory without notes. At the end of the test she told me it was more agreeable than to have candidates looking all the time at their notes on a piece of paper. For me notes are indeed not the most practical things, and that was one of my greatest fear for the great oral.

The great oral is a decisive exam taking place in public session, consisting on a 15 minutes presentation followed by a half hour question session asked by the jury. The subject of the presentation is drawn one hour before the exam. The candidate has to defend his best case against a harsh jury and magistrate. It is common to come out of this exam crying because the jury is so hard and doing his best to to destabilise the candidate. For me, presenting a subject prepared in such a short time was difficult because of the research in the authorised books. There was also the impossibility of seeing my notes and the time while I was speaking. I am not very comfortable reading in Braille, so I would have to plug in headphones on my laptop to read my notes while I was speaking in front of the jury. Moreover, there was a fear I didn’t talk about to most of the people I know.  I feared to speak in front of a jury I couldn’t see. Except for the practical issues, like not knowing if I should start my presentation by Mr chairman or Mrs Chairwoman, I found it unfair not to see their facial expressions. Some would say it is easier that way, so I dare them to try to plead with their eyes closed. To reassure myself I told myself that I was used to speak in public, that I even gave a speech to the UN and that probably no other candidates had such an experience.

My subject was given to me and I saw my life in front of me for a few seconds. Lilia was with me with a couple of books in front of her. There was no time to hyperventilate, I needed to find a problematic, a plan and some ideas to be able to have a good argumentation in front of the jury. My topic: « Is the denunciation legitimate »? At first, I was petrified by fear and I couldn’t give any instruction to Lilia on the research that I needed to do. Then as the minutes passed, little lights started to switch on in my brain. The tension in the room was huge. Lilia’s voice was shaking because of the stress I had passed onto her in spite of myself.

Then the voice of the woman watching over the exam calls me back to reality, making me feel as if I had jumped into an ice bucket. My preparation time is over. I need to go to the exam room. The watcher will walk with us to the room. I had talked with Lilia and we had agreed that she would wait for me outside the room because her presence in the room would make me feel more anxious. The watcher tells me to hurry because the jury don’t like waiting for candidates. However, as we get into the corridor to go upstairs, we meet… the jury! They present themselves all smiling. I am flabbergasted. I had heard that they were so scornful. They offer to use a close by room so I won’t have to cross all the building. At this point, I am wondering if they don’t tend to do too much. It’s not because I am blind that I can’t go upstairs. After all, I am a marathon runner. I am about to tell them again that I can go to the upstairs room when I saw clearly in their game. They are aware of all the obstacles I had to go through to be able to pass this exam, and as an acknowledgement they come down from their pedestal. And then without knowing why I mutter to Lilia that it’s ok, she can come to the room with me.

I come back in the room where I had prepared my exam. It is so small that we have to get another chair from a next door office in order to  have everybody sat. Lilia offers to hold the leash of my guide dog while I am speaking. When I think that when we first met, she was very scared of big dogs! I discretely put an earphone on under my hair. The jury had been informed that I would be using one. After a “Mr chairman, gentlemen and ladies of the jury” I start speaking… My presentation is coherent but I stutter on every words bothered by my listening to my notes that I didn’t have time to reread. I couldn’t see the time while I was speaking, so I went beyond my 15 minutes and the chairman had to warn me. I finished very quickly and it is him who ask the first question: what is the difference between a denunciation and a delation? Thinking very quickly, I explain it is the intention. Then he wonders if France is not a little reluctant as far as the denunciation is concerned. Maybe due to the tension it had provoked during the second world war? I stutter that it was possible and that is maybe why in our country memorial laws are subject to so many controversies.

Thinking that it was the subtlely introduced clue for the jury to question the candidate on a subject they know very well they become enthusiastic. Can I tell them about the decision taken by the constitutional council in 2012 regarding this subject? My brain goes blank and the hopes of the jury die. So they give me the final decision and I must find the juridical logic behind this decision. The court had cancelled the law about repressing the denegation of the Armenian genocide, but they didn’t touch the law forbidding the Shoah contestation.

Trying to stay calm and keeping in mind that the aim is not to know everything but to be able to argue, I tried an answer. France being an accomplice of the Shoah under the regime of Vichy, it is normal that the country now stands very strongly against the Shoah denegation. However, France was never involved in the Armenian genocide. Completely lost, the chairman gives me the right answer before asking me why I didn’t speak about the financial fraud. He asks me what I would do if I discovered that one of my collaborator was doing financial fraud.

I explain to him I would speak about it with my president of bar and it would be his job to take measures. I feel that even though this answer is correct; it is only a minimal answer and that I need to find something else. And it is later that I realise that he probably wanted me to talk about the tracfin, an organisation whose aims is to fight against frauds. But I don’t have time to think. The general attorney gives a rather frontal attack on the secrecy of the instruction that I had presented in a little too absolute way. She wants to know who from the chief inspector, the judge or the prosecutor can tell a story to the press? I give an answer, probably wrong, because the chairman keeps on the same subject. François Molins (the prosecutor of the French cassation court), doesn’t he give press conferences to talk about affairs he is working on? Actually, it is the “information window” which allows prosecutors to express themselves on some current cases.

Finally, the chairman speaks again. And he talks about the Polanski case whose film (j’accuse) is controversial. How do I explain his success when the accusations against him seem true, although under prescription? I say it’s the difference between moral and law. Then he comes back on the “me too” campaign. Is it not too much to see all those denunciations on social media? Understanding it was a tactic to make me very angry – Lilia would tell me later that even the lawyer (the only female of the jury) fell in the trap given her shocked expression – I temperate his words. The sexually abused victims don’t all have the strength to face their aggressor on a trial, thus some other way of denunciation are more accessible for them.

Time is going by and the exam is almost done. At this point I have the famous question “why do you want to be a lawyer?”. I try the most thorough answer I could, the lawyer is a justice auxiliary who have to make sure that no one is charged until there are sufficient proofs found against them. So lawyers are a very important part of the rule of law because they have to ensure the best defence to their client. Then I have the mythical question “could you represent a terrorist?”. Then I have to say in which area I would like to work and then it’s over. The jury gets up and leave the room.

For me, passing the exam is the achievement of a very long and hard work and the beginning of a new goal. I know I will need courage to go to the lawyer school in Lyon where I will be the first one with no sight. In spite of all the school’s good will to have me studying in the best conditions possible, the administration already told me that they don’t have any money to provide me with a personal assistant, even for a few hours a week. However, there will be very thorough researches to be done for the preparation of cases and English course only given online. Again I will have to convince, reassure,  prove and explain, and starting all over again for my research of internship. I would like to do the first one in Turkey, the country of my roots, in the area of domestic violence. I would like to do the second one in Mayote in the asylum-seekers area. Those are the two parts of the law I would like to specialise in.

However, before I start I decided to take a gap year to travel and to work in solidarity projects because I know that in the future it will be more difficult for me especially at the beginning of my career. I had the opportunity to spend the first half of 2020 in Scotland where I worked in a social project. In July I turned thirty and I am now waiting to see if I can continue my journey, as I would like to spend the second half of the year in Japan.

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Finally, I can give conferences to motivate others to achieve their goals and dreams. If you are interested or know any structure that looks for an inspirational speaker, feel free to get in touch with me.

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