ABA Student Laywer: Prepare Yourself for the Bar Exam

To properly prepare for and pass the bar, you need a plan. And like most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for passing the bar. Nevertheless, there are certain issues that you’ll have to address in customizing your plan and certain prerequisites that you simply can’t get around. While I can’t outline a strategy that I know will work for everyone, I can outline the most important questions you will need to ask yourself to prepare and tailor a plan that will work best for you. The road from law school graduate to licensed lawyer may seem daunting at first but it need not. By breaking this journey down into its components, it becomes manageable and much easier than anticipated. As long as you start early, develop a plan, follow it, and don’t panic, you should be able to pass the bar. So let’s get started.

Which exam should I take?

Like law school, preparing for and taking the bar exam requires a serious investment of time and money, so you should give yourself the best possible chances to pass on your first try . The exam is only offered in February and July (only July in Delaware and the February exam in North Dakota depends on a minimum number of applicants), so if you don’t take it right after you graduate, you’ll have to wait several months. The best time to take it is right after graduation, when all that you learned in law school is fresh in your mind. Of course, law school alone doesn’t prepare you to pass the bar. First, you have to decide which bar exam you want to take. This decision should be based on where you want to practice, not on what state has the highest or lowest passage rates. (For purposes of this article, Washington, D.C., is included in all references to U.S. states.) There is nothing inherently useful or impressive about passing the California or New York bar exams just because they’re known for being two of the hardest. Take the exam of the state where you want to practice. If you’re undecided about a practice area or location, it makes sense to take the exam in the state where you attended law school. Law school courses are often geared toward the state’s bar exam of the state where they’re located. Or consider a state that has reciprocity with another state you’re considering. For example, if you’re trying to decide between New York and Pennsylvania, these states offer reciprocity to members of each other’s bar. Check with the bar exam authorities of the states you’re considering working in for their specific rules, as reciprocity between states has various restrictions.If you haven’t yet secured employment, you will likely improve your chances if you take and pass a bar exam. According to Danielle Hansen of LawCrossing, an online legal job site, “Without bar admission into at least one state, your résumé can work against you. A potential employer will see that you’re a J.D. but that you have not passed the bar anywhere.” Employers will likely question the reasons behind this and it may affect their decision making when looking at résumés. For some corporate law and teaching jobs, it may not be necessary for you to pass a bar exam in a particular jurisdiction, but you’ll probably need to have passed a bar exam somewhere. You may decide to go into a nonlegal field that doesn’t require bar exam passage, but what if you change your mind after a few years and decide you want to practice? How much of what you learned in law school will you have retained at that point? Some states allow out-of-state lawyers who’ve passed a bar exam to waive in to their state’s bar, usually with restrictions, and some allow this only under a reciprocity agreement, but these states are in the minority. Most states require practicing lawyers to pass its bar exam—or a slightly shorter lawyer’s exam —before practicing there. If you choose to work for the federal government, most agencies only require you to have passed a bar exam in any state, which allows great flexibility. If you change your mind about where to start your career after passing the bar in one state and you can’t waive in to the other state’s bar, keep in mind that your first exam experience will inform your second and help you as you prepare. (See “Bar Exam Passage Rates by State” on page 26 for first-time, repeat, and overall bar passage statistics.) And if your résumé can boast that you’ve passed more than one state’s bar exam, it will only make you that much more marketable in the future.

How much time and money should I spend?

You don’t want to take a state’s bar exam twice. The best way to ensure that you don’t is to approach this exam with the mindset that failure is simply not an option. What this translates to in terms of time and money will differ for each person, so it’s vital that you acknowledge your needs and take them into account when setting aside time and money to prepare for the bar exam. Most review courses last for at least a month, and they tend to move at a quick pace. If think you’ll need extra time because, for example, you read slowly or get stressed out easily, you should set aside more time accordingly. It’s very useful to talk to others who have recently taken the same exam. Ask them for their advice about how much time and money you’ll need to prepare properly. Listen to what they have to say about the bar exam and bar review courses, taking their propensities and personalities into account, and then make a decision based on your propensities and personality. When seeking employment that may begin before you take the bar, keep the timing in mind and discuss it with any potential employers. Specifically, discuss whether they will give you time off to study and whether they will cover the costs of the exam, including that of a review course. It’s worth taking time off from work to study, even if that means time off without pay. It’s also worth taking a small loan if necessary. Studying for the bar is some of the hardest work you will ever do, so working full time while you are studying is both impractical and imprudent.

How do I get started?

Each state has its own unique set of procedures, fees, and protocols when it comes to accepting applications and administering the bar exam. You must be aware of these procedures so that you don’t miss deadlines and so that you meet all preconditions for sitting for the bar exam. These preconditions vary greatly and may include, for example, taking the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) or completing an application regarding the fitness of your character to practice law. The application deadlines are months before the exam date and differ by state. Become familiar with what your state requires and be meticulous about meeting those requirements. It is imperative that you stay on top of all the paperwork in applying to take the bar. No matter how much you study, you’ll never pass the bar exam if you are not permitted to sit for it. The National Conference of Bar Examiners website (www.ncbex.org) links to the bar exam authority of every state.

What, how, and how much should I study?

The bar exam is unlike any other test you’ve taken. It is as different from your standard law school exam as Alabama is from Oregon. So, you can’t study for it in the same way that you’ve studied for any other exam and expect to pass. Keep in mind that you don’t need to get an A on the bar exam—all you need to do is pass. So, if you are a perfectionist who is used to getting nothing but As, be very careful. Aiming to ace the bar exam is one of the easiest ways to fail it. You can’t know everything you need to know in detail—there is simply too much to learn. You need to resign yourself to learning just a little bit about each topic. Salman Elmi, a senior associate at Ashcraft & Gerel in Washington, D.C., passed the Maryland and Washington, D.C., bar exams and explains it well: “The trick in passing the bar is stepping back and seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak. I think this is why very accomplished students oftentimes have trouble with the bar. They’re used to getting 95 percent scores on their tests. This test covers far too much material that is used far too seldom to be able to get a 95 percent on all of it. You need to focus on getting a 70 percent. Meaning, you know a little bit about everything, and not a whole lot about any one thing.” So there is no need to obsess over details. In fact, doing so will likely only hurt your chances of passing. Most review courses will give you short outlines and long outlines—if you get bogged down in the long outlines, you will never learn all that you need to know. So it’s important to recognize early on that you will never learn everything on every topic, and if you try to, you will only be making failure more likely. Elmi adds, “I remember seeing very accomplished classmates spending two or three days trying to memorize the Rule Against Perpetuities and all of its exceptions and modifications, when in reality they should’ve been memorizing a one-sentence definition of the rule, and simply been familiar with the fact that there may be exceptions and/or statutory modifications.” Your review course should clarify exactly what topics you will need to study, as well as how much time you should be devoting to those topics. Still, you may find that certain topics are tougher for you than others. It only makes sense to spend a little more time on the topics that you find more difficult, but you should not ignore the topics that you find easier either. The best study tools are previous exams. You can generally order them from your state’s bar admissions authority, but your review course may also provide access to them. Practice questions should serve as your main source of study, especially toward the end of your studying. At the beginning, you will spend a lot of time with the outlines, but as time goes on and as you begin to cover more topics, you should be doing more and more practice questions. And pay close attention to the explanation for each answer, regardless of whether or not you got it right. You may have gotten it right for the wrong reason, so it’s important to read all the explanations you can. Katherine Moss, a practicing lawyer in New Mexico and formerly a clerk to now-retired Chief Justice Gene Franchini of the New Mexico Supreme Court, has passed both the Florida and the New Mexico bars and shares this good advice: “Carefully review all the answers on practice tests. The ones you getright and the ones you get wrong. For the ones that are incorrect, figure out why they are incorrect. Is it reading comprehension, not knowing the law, sloppy reading, poor logic? Then you can focus on that area of weakness, and it can really improve your score.” Whenever you are doing practice questions, make sure to use the same timepiece and writing utensils you intend to use on exam day. Also, make sure you fill in the bubbles and don’t just circle answers in your books. If this means making copies of answer sheets, then go to a copy center for five minutes and do it! It’s important to be as comfortable as possible with the exam-day setting. You don’t want to underestimate the time it will take you to complete the exam. Furthermore, there is no great value in doing more than two or three full practice exams. In fact, completing too many full practice exams may lead to burnout, and burnout is far more dangerous than your failure to study any statute. Here again, it is vital that you know yourself and know when it’s time to take a break. (See “How to Manage Stress” on page 30.)

Which review course?

There are too many out there to name, but certain courses are popular for a good reason—they work. Don’t use this as your opportunity to check out the new mom-and-pop bar review course in your neighborhood. If you know that a certain course worked for all your friends, then it will likely work for you, granted you put in the requisite time and effort. If you’ve already taken one bar exam and passed it, then perhaps you can manage without a course, but if you haven’t, then a review course is a must. Sure there are those random people who manage to pass the bar without a bar review course, but there are a lot more people who manage to fail without one. So, play it safe and sign up for the most reputable course you can find. Bar review courses are meant to provide an overview of what will be covered on the exam, so they’re an extremely helpful way to learn what you need to study. They provide an outline of the subjects you need to know as well as study materials. Different types of bar review courses cover different areas. National courses provide overall guidelines for the subjects you need to review, cost about $2,000, and usually last about a month. Supplemental subject review courses are shorter—most are no longer than a week— cost about a quarter of what the full review courses cost, and provide a more in-depth review of certain subjects. For example, one may cover the MBE only and include a full practice exam that students take and then walk students through the answers. The courses you take should be based on the exam your state administers. Deciding which course will work best for you shouldn’t be based on your finances. Rather, this decision should be based on how you learn best and how much discipline you have. When signing up for a course, you’ll realize that you have several options: a “live” course in which the teacher is in the room with you; a recorded course in which you watch a lecture on a television with the rest of the class; an online course; or a recorded course available for individual use by tape, CD, DVD, or mp3. A new option is getting the lectures on an mp3 player that you lease from the bar review course. This works for those who have the discipline to set their own schedules and stick to them. It also allows extra time to study for those who learn well from listening. You may learn better from reading, and you should certainly take that into account when deciding what course to choose. What will work for you depends on who you are. If you don’t have the discipline to stick to your own schedule, then a class with scheduled meeting times may be the best bet for you. Each course should also have a schedule that accompanies it. This schedule will tell you exactly what to read and study and exactly what you will be learning in lecture. Use this schedule as a guideline, not a command. You will find out early on (as you do practice questions) that you need not do everything on the schedule to be prepared or, ultimately, to pass. You will be more adept in some topics than you are in others, and you may find some books less helpful than others. It will be impossible to read and study all the review materials you will be given. Take some time to learn which books need less attention and which books warrant more careful study. This again will depend on how you learn best. So invest some time and careful consideration in choosing a review course and customizing your own schedule. You should set aside at least a week of extra time to do this. You’ll need to study on your own after the bar review courses in order to pass the exam. Depending on when your review courses are, you may have between one and three weeks for your own study before the exam. In his book Don’t Stress the Bar Exam: 40 Tips to Balance the Experience, Michael Moiso advises, “This last stretch of preparation can make or break you.” You should have a plan in place from the beginning that includes the review courses and study time on your own after the bar review course is over. Consult online resources and bar-prep books for help in constructing your plan and schedule, and adhere to them as closely as possible. The bar review course may provide a schedule for follow-up study. Moiso continues, “Unfortunately, too many people rely solely on the information conveyed during the bar prep and supplemental courses to carry them through to the exam. But now is the time to focus on studying like never before. This should be your most intense period of preparation.”

How do I prepare mentally?

The proper mindset is vital to passing the bar. This means avoiding panic and embracing a positive outlook. Of course, being optimistic alone will not get you a passing score. There is no substitute for preparing properly for your biggest test yet. Throughout the exam, keep a positive attitude—keep the mindset that failure is not an option. If you feel that you did badly on one portion of the exam, don’t let that influence how you do on the next portion. If you followed your bar-prep plan, you should be prepared enough to even out the score. Remember, you don’t need an A—you only need to pass. Also remember that this is a scaled, or curved, exam, so if you stuck to your plan, there will likely be many people less prepared than you. These people will help you pass just as much as your right answers will. A lecturer in one of my bar exam review courses told us that, on the day of his bar exam, he sat down to take the test, and a gentleman in front of him turned around before the tests were passed out and said, “Can you believe some people actually take a course for this?” No, he wasn’t kidding, and this is the guy we all need to remember as we’re studying. There are many of these people, and as we say down South, “God bless ’em,” because they help us pass just as much as we do!

What nonstudying preparations should I make for test day?

Don’t do anything new on test day. Now is not the time to experiment. Stick to your routine as much as possible, arrive early, and do whatever it is that keeps you most calm. Make sure you have read and followed the instructions your state sent you on what is permitted in the exam room. What kind of timepiece you are permitted to bring is an important detail. Some jurisdictions prohibit any timepiece that makes noise, for example. Reading and complying with the instructions will give you an edge that far too many people overlook. You don’t want to show up with items that aren’t allowed in the room. Furthermore, expect distractions once you get seated. The bar exam isn’t exactly Emily Post’s final exam on etiquette, so expect the worst. That way, you’ll generally be pleasantly surprised and little distractions won’t throw you off your game. (See “Exam Day: Expect the Unexpected” on page 23.) If your test site is out of town, plan your travel arrangements well in advance. Book your flight and hotel early so that you can pick the best times and location before rooms start booking up. Choose a hotel as close to the test site as possible to avoid any traffic issues and reduce the impact of other delays on the actual day of the exam. While you may have several friends living in the test site city, it might be best to decline their invitations to stay over, as you want to make sure that you are calm and well-rested for exam day. The last thing you want is to stay with a friend the night before and get no sleep because of the loud house party next door. While you never know what’s going to happen anywhere you might stay, hotels are in the business of providing a good night’s rest. And if you have a noisy neighbor at a hotel, the staff will be sure to remedy the situation right away. So, to avoid the distractions and the drama, it’s generally best to arrange your own accommodations far in advance. If at all possible, visit the test location before the actual test day, especially if it’s in a city you’re unfamiliar with. Knowing the street address doesn’t mean you know exactly how to get there or whether you’ll lose five minutes because of a slow elevator. In her book You Can Pass Any Bar Exam, Edna Wells Handy points out that such a visit will allow you “to determine whether there are characteristics of the test site that may impair your ability to concentrate and, if necessary, to prepare for them.” Some test locations may be unusual. For example, the building may be next to a construction or demolition site. If so, you may want to bring earplugs on test day.

What do I do when it’s all over?

Don’t obsess. You definitely got some answers right and others wrong. Leave it at that, and give it a rest. Hopefully your schedule and obligations will allow you a little time after the exam to do whatever it is that you feel like doing. Don’t go straight back to work the day after the test if you can at all avoid it. You’ve earned a break, and if you can take a short vacation, do it. It is very rare in life to experience a sense of relief as profound as the one you’ll feel the second you’ve completed your bar exam. Let yourself truly enjoy this time—you deserve it!

Melody Moezzi is a lawyer and writer in Atlanta who passed the Georgia bar exam on her first attempt. She is the author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims ( University of Arkansas Press, October 2007).