LYNDON B. JOHNSON SAT IN THE OVAL OFFICE, movie tickets cost a buck, and Madonna was getting ready for third grade when Maxcy Filer, then 36 and just out of law school, took the California bar exam for the first time. Remember the fuss when John F. Kennedy Jr. flunked the New York bar twice? Well, this spring Filer finally passed the grueling, three-day California test—which has one of the nation's highest failure rates—on his 48th try.

"I felt ecstatic," says Filer, 61, a city councilman in the L.A. suburb of Compton since 1976. "I never once thought seriously about giving up—I absolutely knew that sooner or later I would pass that exam." Indeed, though applicants can take the bar exam as many times as they wish in more than half the states, Filer's is a record of frustration and perseverance unlikely to be equaled.

"At the very beginning, he told me it might take a long time," recalls Blondell Filer, also 61, Maxcy's wife of 44 years and the mother of their seven children (two of whom, Kelvin, 34, and Anthony, 30, are also attorneys). "We just didn't know that it would take this long. But none of us ever discouraged him or suggested that enough was enough. He isn't a man to lust after material things. He just wanted to be a lawyer."

Filer, born in Marianna, Ark., was a dental technician in Indiana before moving in 1952 to California, where he had been stationed during World War II. There, drawn to the nascent civil-rights movement, he began his quest. Filer decided that such attorneys as former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall "were the only people who were really getting anything done." So, at age 32, having worked as a milk-plant loader and a parking lot attendant, he enrolled in the now-defunct Van Norman Law School in Los Angeles. After graduation, Filer clerked for the L.A. and Compton city attorneys, researching and writing briefs, while continuing to take the bar exam every six months. In 1983 he left the public sector to clerk for son Kelvin, who practices personal-injury and criminal law.

Kelvin (who passed the bar on his first try) theorizes that his father's extensive legal experience made him a less than ideal test taker. "The examiners want you to address a topic and move on," Kelvin says. "He was writing too much about practical matters, rather than the issue the question dealt with." One way Filer coped with his repeated failures was to put off opening the test results. Shortly after Memorial Day, Anthony dropped by his parents' home and saw the most recent envelope on the mantel, still sealed. "My dad was watching one of his favorite shows, Matlock," says Anthony. "He called out, 'Go ahead, you open it for me.' I did. My hands started shaking when I saw the word Congratulations."

Since that happy day, Filer has been promoted by Kelvin from clerk to partner. Says longtime friend Xenophon Lang Jr., a Compton judge: "I'm not the only judge who's stopped in front of that office and just stared at Maxcy's name up there, smiling and shaking my head."

Who'd want to be represented by an attorney who failed the bar exam 47 times? Someone in need of tenacity. "If Maxcy Filer tells a client he's going to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court," says California State Bar President Charles S. Vogel, "by golly, the client ought to believe him."

—TONY CHIU; DAN KNAPP in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Dan Knapp.