WASHINGTON — It took Sen. Lisa Murkowski five attempts to pass the Alaska Bar Exam, a piece of her biography that's gone unreported until now, when she faces a long-shot write-in bid for another term in her Senate seat.
Murkowski, who graduated in 1985 from Willamette University's College of Law in Oregon, wasn't admitted to the Alaska Bar until November 1987. She flunked the exam in July 1985, February 1986, July 1986 and again in February 1987. She passed on her fifth try in July 1987.
Murkowski said that although her failures on the exam aren't something she talks about regularly, she's never hidden them. It's an example of how she "stayed in there," Murkowski said, "and I did not quit."
She said that each time she took the test, she had trouble in particular with the standardized, multiple-choice portion of the exam. After her fourth failure, she and a friend who also struggled with it went to Portland, Ore., to take a preparatory course. During the course, they learned strategies for successfully tackling the standardized portion.
Murkowski returned to Alaska and passed the bar exam. She was so impressed with the company that offered the prep course, PMBR, that for several years afterward she was its representative in Alaska.
"After I made it successfully through, I said, 'nobody should have to go through what I did.'" Murkowski said. "And so, for, I don't know how many years I did it, I would tutor students."
She also signed up as a tutor to other students who had failed the exam. Many were like Murkowski, experiencing their first failure after a lifetime of academic success.
They needed to "work through the psychology of taking on a very difficult exam," she said, including persuading themselves to give it another try. To this day, Murkowski said she still occasionally runs into other lawyers who she tutored, and they thank her for helping them through a rough patch in their own lives.
"I want people to understand to what that episode in my life allowed me to do," she said.
Murkowski last month launched an unprecedented write-in bid for U.S. senator after losing to Joe Miller in the Republican primary. Since then, she, Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams have been under additional scrutiny for their voting records, their platforms and their personal lives.
Much of that scrutiny has been of Miller, who unlike the others in the race, has never held elected office. McAdams, a former school board member, is the mayor of Sitka.
Miller's campaign complained reporters hadn't examined his opponents' lives as closely as they had his, and suggested looking at the gap in time between Murkowski's law school graduation and her admission to the state bar.
After she passed the bar exam, Murkowski worked from 1987 to 1989 as an attorney in the Anchorage District Court Clerk's office. She was in private practice from 1989 to 1998, when she won a state House seat. She served in the Alaska Legislature until her 2002 appointment to the U.S. Senate, and then was re-elected to a six-year Senate term in 2004.
Miller — the other lawyer in the race — is a 1995 graduate of Yale's law school. He took the Alaska bar exam once, passing it in July 1995. He was admitted to practice law in Alaska in November 1995.
Generally, about two-thirds of people taking the exam passed it in the years Murkowski failed it. In July 1985 and February 1986, 69 percent passed; 62 percent passed in July 1986, and 74 percent in February 1987. The year she passed it, 63 percent of exam-takers aced it.