Marlyce Gholston: 50 years on the job, and counting
By Melody Finnemore
Marlyce Gholston, who joined the
Oregon State Bar staff in April 1956,
was recognized recently along with
some other folks who got their start
that year — the OSB class of 1956 —
during a luncheon honoring the
50-year bar members. Gholston was also honored at a reception in late April.
When Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz applied to take the bar exam in 1975, Marlyce Gholston ushered him through the process. In fact, De Muniz points out, he is one of many lawyers in Oregon who can say that Gholston has been a presence in his or her professional life as they’ve progressed from applicant to bar member and, in some cases, Supreme Court justice.
Gholston recently celebrated her 50th anniversary with the Oregon State Bar. Between her jobs as admissions director and executive director of the Board of Bar Examiners — a role she’s had since 1972 — Gholston has long been a respected member of Oregon’s legal community.
"Seldom in our lifetimes do we see one institution influenced over 50 years by one person," De Muniz says. "In the 50 years that Marlyce has been associated with the Board of Bar Examiners, there has been no controversy. She has steered it as a very competent ship, and I think it’s remarkable that there has been no controversy considering what a sensitive institution it is."
Gholston has Mr. Lexro Prillaman to thank for her illustrious career. Prillaman taught Gholston government and history at Lincoln High School, and told her about a job opening at the bar while visiting her parent’s grocery store one day. Gholston, then 19, joined the bar’s staff of three – headed by Executive Director John Holloway - and worked as a secretary and office assistant.
Today, the bar employs 85 people, and Gholston manages her own staff of three. She once carried out a range of tasks, from answering phones and handling the bar’s mail to addressing disciplinary matters. Gholston’s job now focuses specifically on admissions, in part because there are so many more people taking the bar exam. In the 1950s and ’60s, the bar offered the exam once a year at the state capitol and received about 200 applications. Today, the exam is held twice a year in Portland and draws 800 applicants.
"The attrition rate in law school is much lower and class sizes are more constant now. It used to be that law professors at the start of the year would tell their students to look at the people on either side of them, and they’d say, ‘By the end of the year, one of you will be gone.’ That’s not the case anymore," Gholston says. "And when I first started it was almost unheard of to have a woman lawyer. Now about half of the applications are from women."
Over the years, Gholston has witnessed spikes in the number of applications that coincided with popular legal shows on television, such as "L.A. Law" during the ’80s, "Law & Order" during the ’90s and, now, "Boston Legal."
Other changes during the last 50 years include the makeup of the bar exam itself. Initially, the exam featured only essay questions. Later, multiple choice questions were added. Today, performance tests that evaluate fundamental skills such as problem solving, legal analysis and reasoning, factual analysis and communication are part of the mix. Character and fitness play an essential role in the admissions process as well now.
Technology has impacted the testing process and applicants were allowed to use laptops for the first time in February, Gholston says. In addition, special testing accommodations for applicants has become more prevalent with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Gholston says the bar as an organization has changed and now offers many more programs and activities for its members, such as greater opportunities to earn continuing legal education credits. The addition of an affirmative action program and a stronger disciplinary process, with the addition of the bar’s Client Assistance Office, are two examples of the OSB’s evolution over the years, she says.
As executive director of the Board of Bar Examiners, Gholston’s role is to manage the volunteer board that serves as a watch dog for the hundreds of applicants seeking admission to the bar each year. The board, who is appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court, consists of 12 attorney members and two public members. They are charged with: writing and grading the exam’s nine essay questions; reviewing and critiquing the exam as well as the accompanying Professional Responsibility Examination and Multistate Performance Test; reviewing rules for admission and recommending changes to the Oregon Supreme Court; determining whether each applicant has the character and fitness to practice law and acting on petitions for waivers of the Supreme Court’s rules for admission.
Gholston’s responsibilities include setting the board’s meeting schedule, ordering the national bar exams and scheduling dates for the exam to be held locally. She also compiles and distributes the applications that allow law students to sit for the exam, and she oversees the evidentiary hearings when the board has determined that an applicant’s admission to the bar is in question.
Her job as head of the "BBX," as it’s called, has allowed Gholston to work closely with many Oregon Supreme Court justices over the years, including Justice Wallace P. Carson, who met Gholston 44 years ago when he was admitted to the bar.
"I deem her to be a dear friend and I’m certainly an admirer of her work. She is extraordinary in her work and, in my view, the best in the field of admissions. She has run the program extremely well and is well respected nationally," Carson says. "She’s been a lot of help to me over the years and certainly to the court in a variety of matters. She’s just been a treasure to the Oregon State Bar."
Justice Rives Kistler worked with Gholston for about five years in the late 1980s and early ’90s and says he appreciated Gholston’s ability to guide board members through an often challenging endeavor as they waded through hundreds of exams.
"It’s really a wonderful experience, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of grading 500 bar exams you start to wonder why you’re doing it," he says. "Marlyce has a great way of keeping people on track and enthusiastic throughout that process."
Jeanne Loftis, an attorney with Portland’s Bullivant Houser Bailey and immediate past chair of the Board of Bar Examiners, says she enjoyed attending national conferences with Gholston, who serves as executive secretary to the Council of Bar Admission Administrators for the National Conference of Bar Examiners. As other members described the history of their bar associations, Gholston often was able to provide her own firsthand knowledge, Loftis says.
"Her memory is just absolutely unbelievable and she’s an incredible historian," Loftis says, adding she also admires Gholston’s leadership style. "She has a way of leading without dictating, and she’s very good at gently offering very sound advice without sounding adversarial. You feel that you’re in charge even though she’s running the show, but she does it in such a way that you feel appreciated and respected. That helps everyone feel like they are an important part of the group.
"Marlyce also is very good with the students and she sets the bar high for professionalism very early in the process. She’s very clever and has a strong sense of ethics and professionalism, and the bar has benefited greatly from that. I just love working with her," Loftis adds.
Gholston says her favorite part of working with the Board of Bar Examiners is the high caliber of its volunteer members.
"To have worked with these people who, through their volunteer work and their professionalism, have become circuit and district court judges and even Oregon Supreme Court judges has been very special," she says. "This is one of the only times in my life I personally know the governor of the state of Oregon and the first lady."
Gholston, who began managing the bar’s exam and admissions process her very first day on the job, has overseen some 15,000 admissions in her half-century with the bar. She’s missed just one out of 82 bar exams in the last 50 years, and that was due to a ruptured appendix. She tried to tell the doctors she would be leaving within 48 hours because she had to administer the exam, but her stay lasted 11 days.
Mother Nature has tried to deal Gholston a blow or two over the years, with little success. A mild but definitely noticeable earthquake rattled the exam one year. During another session, torrential rain combined with blocked storm drains to flood an exam site’s parking lot, forcing people to wade into the exam room with their pants legs rolled up to their knees. The exam has taken place on the hottest day of the year more than a few times, with little relief provided by portable fans.
Gholston has seen her share of manmade challenges along the way as well. Bar exams are supposed to be held in quiet places, obviously. Signs go up that say, ‘Shhhhhhh! Testing!’ and staff are very careful not to slam doors or make other noises during the exam, lest anyone’s concentration be affected.. So the extreme noise from jackhammers going full blast during construction work on Memorial Coliseum — and also from rollerbladers skating around overhead one year -- was something unusual to contend with.
A 14-inch water pipe burst during one exam at the Coliseum, requiring emergency porta-potties and portable sinks. In another session where toilets were plentiful, one applicant preferred to use a tree instead of walking the length of the exam hall to reach the indoor facilities during the test. And, on a few occasions in a row, Gholston watched as someone’s wife dropped her husband off to take the exam, only to see the husband walk away (and not take the exam), returning just in time to be picked up at the end of the test.
It’s fair to say there’s no shortage of variety in Gholston’s job, a fact that keeps things interesting even after 50 years. "Even though it’s somewhat the same, there are enough changes that it’s not stagnant," she says. "The interaction with the bar staff and members has always been interesting and rewarding, too."
And through it all, Gholston is the woman who knows the score but isn’t sharing any secrets. She not only knows who got the all-time highest score on the bar exam, but plenty of other details about attorneys practicing throughout Oregon. But Gholston isn’t dishing any dirt. She just gives a gentle smile and reveals nothing when pressed for the inside scoop.
When she’s not immersed in the inner workings of the bar, Gholston enjoys spending time with Glenn, her husband of nearly 47 years; their two daughters, Arlene and Leone (who also works at the bar); two sons, Mark and Norman and four grandchildren. Gholston says the bar was ahead of its time in allowing her to work while starting a family in the early ’60s before daycare was readily available.
"The bar allowed me to bring Mark, my first baby, to work. Most people never knew he was there. I also worked nights and at home when necessary," she says. "The OSB was flexible enough to make it all do-able."
As her family grew older, Gholston’s spare time revolved around international folk dancing with her husband. Today, the self-admitted craft fanatic works with ceramics, needlework, Norwegian embroidery, rubber stamping and porcelain. "If there’s a craft I have to try it," she says.
Though she could always use more time for crafts, Gholston says she has no definite plans to retire soon. "Working at the OSB has afforded me an opportunity to get to know and work with wonderful lawyers and judges who have volunteered their time and served their profession on boards and committees -- and also to work with great bar staff over half a century," she says, adding she’s enjoyed the opportunity to work with colleagues from all over the country. "It’s been a great job."
Her plan to stick around comes as good news for many like Justice Kistler, who says he considers Gholston the "heart and soul of the board."
"I don’t know what we’d do without Marlyce, to be honest. She’s so familiar with what’s gone on in the past and how the board should function and she provides a sense of continuity," Kistler says. "Not only does she bring all the wealth of experience to the board, but she also cares about the bar and ensures the board functions well so the good, qualified people are accepted and those that aren’t are sorted out."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent Bulletin contributor.
© 2006 Melody Finnemore