It’s that time of year again . . . time for recently liberated law school grads to enjoy an all-too-fleeting sense of freedom before turning to the task of preparing for the bar exam. This will be my seventh (!!!) year of working with grads studying for the bar. Hopefully all of you will only have to go through this once,* but as someone who has now gone through many, many bar exam study periods, here are a few essential truths that I have observed over time.
* NOTE: sometimes very smart, very capable people get hung up on some aspect of the bar exam and end up not passing. You can overcome! But it might take some extra work to figure out what’s getting in your way.
(1) You have to study. Even if you were #1 in your class at H/Y/S, you have to study, because the bar exam is its own unique challenge, separate and apart from most of what you did in law school. This is not to say that what you did in law school did not help prepare you for the bar exam–of course it did! (See Point (3)). But the bar exam tests your legal knowledge in a slightly different way. Some people may need to study more, and some people may need to study less, but everyone has to put consistent effort in over the course of the summer.
(2) But don’t study too much. There is a lot of pressure–both externally imposed and self-imposed–to study 24-7. This is not only ineffective; it will exhaust you and undermine your efforts. Set reasonable goals in terms of studying and meet those goals. Do this, and you will be in good shape.
(3) You have to be motivated to pass. Students sometimes complain that the bar exam is a meaningless exercise. First, I don’t think this is true; second, this mindset will not help you as you prepare for the exam. I think the bar exam is relevant. Why? Because lawyers are problem solvers. And the bar exam can be thought of as a challenging problem that you are tasked with solving. Your ability to solve this problem says something meaningful about your ability to tackle challenges in general. Also, you will be surprised how much law you will learn. Most of the details you won’t remember later, but you will have a well-rounded sense of the field, conceptually. And that is a good thing.
(4) You have to be in charge of your own destiny. If you tend to let outside forces interfere with your study plans and then blame those outside forces for your failure to study . . . this is a bad sign. Remember, you are the captain of this ship! As any past bar exam taker will tell you, attitude and mindset go a long way.
(5) You will be amazed at how much you can memorize. There is a very typical pattern with grads where they are simply overwhelmed at the beginning of the study period with the amount of material they need to memorize. A couple of weeks in, they have their study system down and are chopping away at it. By the last few days before the bar exam, you are one with the material. Remember, too, that you are not actually “memorizing” everything. You are understanding the conceptual foundations; you are learning the vocabulary and analysis process; you are memorizing the details of the rules of law. Much of what you will bring with you to the bar exam is understood and learned, not simply memorized.
(6) The best way to learn is by practicing. Yes, you need to read your outlines, listen to lectures, create study materials and review them. But the day of the bar exam, you will be answering multiple choice, essay, and performance test questions. Therefore, you want to emphasize practicing answering multiple choice, essay, and performance test questions.
(7) People generally fail the bar for three reasons: they don’t take seriously the time commitment required for studying; they don’t take seriously the task of learning the specific skill of writing bar exam answers; and/or they have a major life event during the study period. Two out of the three of these are under your control!