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Michigan Bar exam crashes online; company points to cyberattack

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Prospective lawyers in Michigan on Tuesday took what was being hailed as the nation's first online bar exam but the test crashed, a mishap the manufacturer blamed on a cyberattack. 

Michigan Hall of Justice, also known as the Michigan Supreme Court building, in Lansing (2015 File photo)

John Nevin, spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, said 773 law school graduates were taking the online bar exam manufactured by ExamSoft Worldwide Inc. when they got locked out at the beginning of the second module of the five-module test due to a cyber attack.

The issue was resolved soon after, Nevin said: 200 students were back in the system within 10 minutes, while the others could access the exam in 37 minutes.

Among those who experienced the  issue was Kerry Martin, a University of Michigan Law School graduate who downloaded all five modules prior to the day-long, timed test.

He tried to get the password that was posted five minutes before the second module began at 10 a.m. Martin went to the page where the password was supposed to be but couldn't get onto the website. He refreshed the page for more than 30 minutes and still couldn't access the password to continue taking the test.

Martin called the ExamSoft Worldwide hotline, but it was busy. He eventually got the password and began taking the second module of the test 30 minutes late. But he completed the exam on time.

"I don’t want to overly dramatize what happened but it caused a period of strong anxiety in the middle of a test day for myself and, I’m sure, for many other people," said Martin, who begins practicing full-time next month at the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center in Ypsilanti.

"It just is further proof that trying to administer an exam like this online that has never really been done before with these high of stakes in the middle of a pandemic is unfair," he said. "And it’s particularly unfair for people who don’t have access to private spaces, who don’t have access to reliable internet. There is a whole host of problems that I can get into and a lot of them get into socioeconomic and racial disparities that are exacerbated by giving the bar exam this way."

Officials from ExamSoft Worldwide Inc. could not be reached Tuesday for comment. 

But on Twitter, the company posted a statement saying it experienced a "distributed denial of service (DDOS) cyber attack."

"ExamSoft was able to successfully thwart this attack, albeit with a minor delay," the statement said. "This is the first time ExamSoft has ever experienced a DDOS attack at the network level. We worked closely with the Michigan Bar so that the exam could continue forward as scheduled with the appropriate extra time allotted to enter the exam for those who may have been delayed. All exam takers were successfully able to start and complete all modules of the Michigan Bar Exam."

In 2015, ExamSoft settled a $2.1 million class action lawsuit following a software glitch that did not allow prospective lawyers to upload their answers.

Late Tuesday, the Michigan Board of Law Examiners issued a statement commending and thanking every test-taker "for their patience and commitment to work through the delay caused by a cyber-attack."

The board said no data were compromised, and test-takers affected by the delay were given additional time. 

"The Board is committed to further investigation to better understand the cyber-attack and the impact on applicants, if any," the statement said "Once we have completed this investigation, the Board will report its findings to the Court. The Board thanks the applicants who had to prepare for and take the exam under unique circumstances. Their dedication and passion to becoming lawyers has been tested."

Michigan's bar exam is given to law school graduates in February and July. The Michigan Board of Law Examiners prepares and grades the test to ensure an adequate level of competency among lawyers to protect the public, Nevin said.

Usually, the exam is held in person. But the COVID-19 pandemic led the Michigan Board of Law Examiners to announce in May that it would offer the exam online to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

"“The board conducted extensive research and consultations to make this decision, including outreach to Michigan public health officials and law school deans, while monitoring developments in the pandemic and approaches of other states,” Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian K. Zahra, the court’s liaison to the Board of Law Examiners, said in May

“I am confident the Michigan essay examination will adequately test the applicants’ legal knowledge and skill. The public can be confident that those who pass this exam will have requisite knowledge of state law to become a member of the Michigan bar. Likewise, law school graduates can sit for the exam without risking public health."

Martin noted that scores of other states were administering their bar exams in person on Tuesday, so in spite of the test glitch, he was glad to have taken the test online.

"For peers of mine who had to take bar exam in person today, I am so sorry," he said. "It's an awful welcome to the legal profession."