Ten Tips for Passing the Bar Exam
Editor's note: It is that time of year again and we're recycling this article for the recent grads who are in the marathon.
Ten Tips for Passing the Bar Exam (Especially if You Didn’t the Last Time)
1. Don’t over-study. Yes, I know that law students think this is impossible but it is important that you don’t wear yourself out and confuse yourself before the bar exam.
If you go into the Bar Exam worn out, you won’t operate at your peak. It is more important to be fresh and rested, able to access what you do know, than to know one more piece of data.
When I took BarBri for the Georgia Bar in 1989, they had a criminal law lecturer who gave me the most valuable advice I ever had for bar preparation. He said that there are three levels of knowledge. In the first level, you have a superficial sense of a topic but not an in-depth knowledge.
That in-depth knowledge is what law professors have and then only about one subject. They can distinguish the fine points and they know why they were decided a particular way. Level 3 knowledge is unattainable for the number of subjects on the Bar Exam. So that leaves Level 2 knowledge. In Level 2, you know just enough to be dangerous. You know there are fine points but you can’t distinguish them so you get confused. And the readers of the exam probably won’t appreciate those fine points even if you spot them since they’re lawyers not law professors. So, contrary to popular opinion, according to the criminal law lecturer and my own experience, your goal is Level 1 superficial knowledge of every subject.
2. Create a schedule and write it down. If you have a written schedule, you can “be here now” with your studying. If you are scheduled to work on Criminal Law on Monday, you can really focus on Criminal Law on Monday, knowing that Torts is scheduled for next Thursday. Without a firm schedule, you may be distracted with worrying about what you haven’t done or afraid you won’t get to everything. The schedule assures you that you will get to it all in its own good time.
Set aside a reasonable amount of time for each subject. Schedule your hardest subject and those you didn't take (like Secured Transactions and Negotiable Instruments) for the dates closest to the exam. Study your best subjects first. If you took a subject in law school and did well, a refresher reading of the subject may be enough. If you didn’t take a class in law school, try to spend a little extra time with it. If you allot two days to Civil Procedure, don’t get bogged down in long-arm jurisdiction for an entire day. Yes, it is endless and some law professors have made that topic their life work. They won’t be reading your exam and the fine points will be lost on the practicing lawyers who are.
Follow your schedule but don’t make yourself crazy. Be realistic. If you are working and studying, it is unrealistic to think you’ll work a twelve-hour day and then come home and study for six hours. You may be tempted to schedule yourself during a holiday weekend but you’re unlikely to actually study and more likely to feel guilty and perhaps even panicked about missing that study time.
If possible, plan to finish your studying by the last week before the bar exam. Use those last few days to do quick refreshers, read over your notes, get extra sleep, walk in the woods.
3. Try to apply unfamiliar topics to life experience. Often the bar review course is our first introduction to some subjects. Try applying your life experiences to some of the more obscure topics. Secured Transactions? Have you ever financed a car? Negotiable Instruments? Look at your checkbook. Make up your own hypotheticals to help you remember the basics of each of those subjects. Remember, a superficial knowledge should be sufficient. Spend your energy on raising your scores on subjects you really do know.
4. Know your own studying style. I like to study in a noisy café with lots of interruptions. I believe I’m in the minority there but it has worked well in the past. In fact, the one bar exam that I didn’t pass (of the 4 I’ve taken), I had peace and quiet to study for a couple of weeks. I usually spend all my time creating an outline but never have time to review it. Somehow, the act of writing down the info with a pen in a notebook is enough for me to remember it. (It doesn’t seem to work as well if I type it.) I’ve known other people who feel the need to pour over their outlines for days, remembering all the elements of a robbery, using memory tools. Once I get the big picture, the details make sense. Some people need the details to build the big picture.
How did you study best in law school? That is a good indicator of how you should study for the bar. Do you have the long attention span of someone who can study for twelve hours straight and still retain information? Or are you better off with a schedule that has you study an hour and then take an hour off?
5. Focus on your strengths. Reviewing your old law school or failed bar exams from past attempts makes some sense but focus on what you did right rather than obsessing about what you didn’t. Look at your BEST answers and analyze what worked. Then do more of that! It is my experience that often folks knew the material but just didn’t get it down on paper. They got side-tracked or in a hurry and missed some important fact.
6. Earn points for what you don’t know! On the exam, don’t be afraid to spot issues even when you don’t know why it is significant. You’ll get points for recognizing the issue. A friend of mine was a practicing prosecutor in Florida and took the NC bar knowing nothing about Corporations. Of course, there was a Corporations question. On the Corp question which asked how he would advise his client, he said something to this effect: “I’d make sure my client had a cup of coffee and I’d excuse myself for a few moments to do some research. I’d go down the hall, pull Chapter (is it 55?) off the shelf and I’d turn to the chapter on minority stockholder rights…..” In his answer, he showed that he knew the issues, didn’t know the law and did know that he needed to look it up. He passed the exam. There was a question on the North Carolina bar that so mystified me that I can't tell you what subject it was about. I wrote it as a Civil Procedure question. I passed.
When I get a hypothetical scenario, I go through and circle the facts that I think raise issues. Before I leave that question, I make sure I’ve mentioned each of them. Yes, some are red herrings and luckily I’ve been able to recognize those. But I’m sure that mentioning that I considered the red herring and why it wasn’t relevant has gotten me points on some questions.
7. Take care of your health. In law school, a night of studying meant getting tanked up on sugar and caffeine. If I didn’t have it in the house, Charley’s delivered until 2 a.m. I’d order a pizza and two 32 oz. cherry cokes, my drug of choice. My law school years were not my healthiest years. If you’ve been abusing your body with caffeine (and alcohol) all through law school, try to regain your sanity before you start studying for the bar. Most experts advise a six-week study period for the bar exam. In law school, the pre-exam study period was only a week or so and you could get away with a lot. Studying for exams was like running a 100-yard dash every day or two. The bar exam is the marathon. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep in the weeks before the bar. And, yes, take your vitamins and your Echinacea. Especially as you get closer to the exam, avoid sick people if you can. I know people who have passed the bar exam while having the flu but you don't need to prove yourself that way!
On the day before the exam, schedule a massage, do some yoga, and eat foods that are especially good for you. Get a good night’s sleep. Stock up on some healthy snacks and take them with you to the exam. If you want chocolate or junk food, eat them on Day Two. (Caveat: if you don’t clean up your diet and lifestyle before the exam, don’t try to clean it up at the exam. The last thing you need is a caffeine headache or to be withdrawing from junk food.)
8. Talk to friends and family before you get crazy. And, you will probably get crazy and melt down in your own special way, more than once. If you haven’t taken a bar exam, you have no idea how stressful it can be. The pressure to succeed and the fear of failure can be overwhelming. Your family, your spouse, your non-legal friends (if you still have any after law school), won’t understand. Try to prepare them before you get crazy. Apologize in advance. Ask their indulgence. Significant others should expect to be ignored. Promise to make it up to them. Schedule a vacation with them after the exam. If you have children, do your best to find ways to entertain them away from your craziness. When I took the North Carolina bar, I was a single parent with a 10 year old at home. For the weeks leading up to the bar, my wonderful community created a calendar of events for her. Every Tuesday for six weeks, she went swimming at the Y with Andy and Vicky. On Wednesdays, Zemo picked her up and took her for a ride in his red Miata. She went out for pizza at the mall. She visited with her friends John and Hannah. Each day was a new fun activity. Not only did she not feel neglected, she was disappointed when the bar exam was over and she was stuck with Mom. I was able to concentrate on studying and she wasn’t around for my meltdowns.
9. Make your life easy during the week of the bar exam. On the way to the Florida bar exam, I was rear-ended at a railroad crossing. Luckily I had allowed an extra day to travel to Tampa for the exam. Can you imagine how stressful it might have been if I’d been driving there on the morning of the exam? If you can stay in a hotel or with a friend near the site of the test, do it. My favorite bar exam experience was the North Carolina Bar. A friend who lived in Raleigh invited me to stay at her house which was very close to the site. She volunteered to drive me to the test site and pick me up each day. She made sure I got up on time. She fed me breakfast and made sure I had snacks. She didn’t expect me to converse with her and left me alone in the evenings. It was heavenly. If you don’t have a guardian angel in the town where the exam is given, try to at least get a hotel room.
10. If this isn't your first exam, that failed bar exam is history. Do what you can to put it in your past. We law school grads aren’t used to failure and it surprises, hurts, and shames us. Even if our friends say “hey, it was just a test”, we ‘know’ that it was a reflection of our worth on the planet. Okay, so we know that’s not really true but our gut may say something different. Some famous, very successful lawyers didn't make it the first time and they recovered. Recognize success where you have it in your life. Get therapy to heal if you need it. But don’t take that last bar exam into the new one with you. It is a whole new test and this time, you’re going to pass!
Kim Wright is the publisher of www.cuttingedgelaw.com. She is also licensed in North Carolina. She passed the Georgia and Florida bar exams in 1989 and the North Carolina bar exam in 1994, all on the first try. In 2004, she failed the Oregon Bar Exam. She has lots of excuses (the distractions of working fulltime, being in a new relationship, being in the middle of a house closing, being over-confident and not following her own advice, among them) and she no longer wakes up at night, remembering the answer to the question about the Commerce clause that would have earned her the two extra points she needed to pass. She has realized that if she had passed the Oregon Bar, she might never have returned to North Carolina or started CuttingEdgeLaw.com.