Passing the Bar: The Last Hurdle

passing the bar

As the calendar makes its way into June, we are thrilled to congratulate 3Ls on their graduation. Of course, as exciting as it is to celebrate the completion of law school, any soon-to-be graduate knows that the most daunting part of becoming a lawyer is just around the corner: passing the bar exam.

For many law students, the bar exam is easy to ignore throughout much of their time in school. But it’s pretty common for even the most serene students to completely lose their mind over preparation for what is essentially the most important test they will ever take.

All of us at LearnLeo understand this experience. We’ve all taken and passed the bar, and lived to tell about the experience. Based on those experiences, we’ve put together some suggestions for how to make the most of your summer studying for the bar.

1.    DON’T PANIC!

First, realize that the great majority of students that went to a good law school end up passing the bar exam their first time. Some people, however, do fail the bar. And some of the people who fail are very smart and attended excellent law schools. Indeed, there’s a good chance that someone you know will fail the bar. But even if you don’t pass; remember that failing is not the end of the world.

Most legal employers give new hires a mulligan if they fail on their first attempt and allow them to re-take the exam before their jobs are in jeopardy. If you make mistakes during your first try, you should re-evaluate your approach and try again. So take a deep breath and recognize that, if you got this far, you have what it takes to pass.

2.    The bar exam is about effort

Does attending an elite law school help your chances of passing the bar? Yep. Does it help to be a smart person? Sure. Still, there are plenty of smart people who have graduated from good law schools but will fail the bar exam. Frequently, this occurs because these students chose not to take bar prep seriously.

The bar isn’t the LSAT. It’s not a test of your mental abilities; it’s a test of your knowledge, organizational skills, and stamina. (And most of this knowledge will not, unfortunately, be stuff you can conjure up from law school courses.) Simply put, you can’t bullshit the bar exam. If you don’t know the law that’s being tested, you dramatically increase your odds of failing; so it’s essential that you devote serious time to studying for the exam. It’s not always easy. We get that. During your 8th consecutive hour of studying the perfection of security interests or the elements of intentional torts, it will be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But don’t give up. All of that effort is necessary and will pay off in the end. (You’ll get to be a licensed attorney, duh.)

3.    Be wary of burnout

Remember, studying for the bar is a two and a half month marathon, not the 2 week sprint that is law school finals.  Yet many terrified students begin their marathon study sessions too early in the summer and find themselves completely drained during the weeks leading up to the test. The last two or three weeks before the exam are crucial, and you need to be able to take full advantage of them.  You want to be peaking during the exam, not weeks before.

Most bar exam prep classes begin early, some within days of graduation. (These are the sit-down-in-a-chair-type classes. If you’re watching lecture videos online, there’s obviously more flexibility.) After having just survived the grind of finals, followed by the high of graduation, it can be difficult to transition back to attending class every day and studying in your off time.

One of the tried and true study strategies is to, for the first month and a half of bar prep, focus on simply keeping up with the lectures and work assignments on your bar class syllabus. For many, minimizing the amount of extra studying done during this early period can help avoid burnout later.

In fact, the early weeks of bar prep are a great time to exercise, get a new hobby, or even a part time job. Most of what makes the bar exam experience so excruciating is the sheer boredom of spending hours upon hours listening to lectures and cramming black letter law. You should still be doing that, of course, but having something else to occupy your attention and take your focus off the monotony of bar study can be really useful. It can also improve your memory by providing mental breaks to prevent concepts from running together in your head.

Many successful test takers also use the July Fourth holiday weekend as a natural divider, separating the low-key studying phase from the high intensity all-day-and-night study sessions to come.

Of course, for some students, slow and steady wins the race: it might work best for you to study 6-8 hours per day every day for 8 weeks instead. In other words, to a certain extent you need to ignore everyone else (yes, even us) and just do what works for you.

4.    When it’s time, shift into high gear

The bar prep journey is different for everyone. At some point, the pressure to not fail, the short time left before the exam, and the list of things you haven’t done will combine to turn your seven- or eight-hour days into twelve-hour days. This may never happen to you, but if it does, let it happen. Just don’t forget to eat. And keep a pitcher of water on your desk.

To prepare for the home stretch, make sure you don’t have any commitments in the last couple weeks that will get in your way, as even the little stuff can interrupt all of the magnificent learning that’s going on. This includes that hobby or job we told you might be a good idea during the beginning of your study stretch. Use all available resources: buy groceries online, or have a family member or significant other prepare meals; get things delivered instead of interrupting your studying with extra trips out (Amazon is your friend). The three weeks before the bar exam need to be all about the bar, so do whatever you have to in order to maximize your available studying time.

5.    Study active and plan ahead

In law school, you outlined your classes to better understand the material. The act of creating something of your own can really help cement your knowledge. You may not have the time to outline all 15 topic areas posed by the bar, but you probably have time to create flash cards for key issues or flow charts for smaller, self-contained areas of law like commercial paper or suretyship. Depending on what style of learner you are, just reading the materials in your bar prep books and relying on lecture can be dangerous.

Don’t forget to take practice exams, and make sure you take at least one or two under real bar conditions. The last thing you want to get tripped up on is the format of the bar, you should know that hands down when you enter the exam. Also, since the bar is a timed test, you want to make sure you are answering the questions at the right pace (don’t take too long on any one MBE question). Taking exams under exam conditions will give you an idea of how much time you have to get the test done at your pace, if you need to speed up, or if you can slow down and take more time. Go into the actual test with a good idea of how many multiple choice questions/essays you should be finishing every 30 to 60 minutes and try to stay on or slightly ahead of your predetermined pace.

The bar exam is 2 to 3 full days long, depending on the state. Develop the stamina you need to take that kind of test. Taking one MBE section every other day won’t do it. Instead, take the full MBE in a day, and if you find your score for sections you took at the end of the day trailing off, it’s probably a good idea to schedule a day or two of full MBE/essay sessions to get your stamina up (just be careful not to overdo it).

Know the rules of your exam and plan around them. Find out what you can and cannot bring into the exam room. If you can’t bring food make sure you have meal plans for the designated breaks and make sure you eat enough so you aren’t hungry during the exam. Your stomach can be an unwelcome distraction for you and possibly annoy your neighbor.

Finally, make sure you know exactly where your test site is and how long it will take you to arrive. The last thing you want is to head into the exam stressed out from a harried morning trip to the test center.

6.    Know thyself

Ultimately, it’s important to know yourself and what works for you when studying. If you’ve made it to this point, you’ve already conquered both college and law school (and perhaps another degree, you overachiever). You’ve probably got a lot of studying under your belt.

Only you know whether you work best by yourself, with study buddies, or merely in the presence of others (in order to keep you from procrastinating). But, no matter how you study, do make slight variations to keep yourself fresh. If you’re studying away from home, try switching from studying at school to a coffee shop. Or, if you feel your mind numbing, switch rooms in your apartment or your position at your desk. In the intense period right before the exam, it’s often the little things that make it all tolerable.

Good luck!

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