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Sunday, April 14, 2013

How To Pass the Bar Exam

Earlier in my teaching career I gave bar review lectures all over the country for a ten year period.  Thus I witnessed thousands of people facing bar exams, heard their concerns, gave them advice, and eventually developed a min-lecture I threw into the mix containing my advice on taking bar exams.  That lecture, somewhat developed, is below, but if some of it sounds familiar to readers of this blog it may be because a couple of thoughts are taken word for word from a prior post dealing with a similar topic: “How To Take a Law School Exam” (November 30, 2012).  It certainly won’t hurt you to read them again.
A.  Before the Bar Exam
1. Calm yourself down.  Yes it’s the most important exam you will ever take in your life.  But, for the reasons I explain below, you are highly likely to sail right through the experience so that in a few months you will be raising you hand and swearing to be a respectable member of the bar.  If you graduated from a good law school and passed all of your course with no danger of flunking them or even making a “D” your chances of passing the bar are excellent even if you do little studying for it (which would be a bad decision).  If you graduated from any accredited law school you likely got a first rate education in the principles of the law, and, again, the bar exam should be a small (if unpleasant) hill to climb, nothing like Mt. Everest.
So (deep breath) this is going to happen and is almost certainly going to end well.
2.  Study smart.  Okay, studying is hard work, but whoever said you only get to do easy things in life? This is your chosen profession—right?—so it deserves the effort necessary to acquire the knowledge to begin your career.  You should take a bar review course, go to the lectures, study the guides, but—and this is a major “but”—you should do so with a new goal in mind.
If your goal on the bar exam is to memorize all the law that might possibly be tested, that's of course impossible, and you might as well quit now.  No one could do that.  In law school your goal (rightfully) was to make the highest grade you could on every exam you took.  But on the bar exam (happily) your goal is very different.  You don’t need to ace this exam. You only need to make a passing grade.  That leads to altered study tactics.  
Look at the list of the subjects tested on the bar and divide them into categories: (a) subjects I understood, liked, and did well in, (b) subjects I understood and with a review can bring back into temporary mastery, (c) subjects I can learn enough to get by, and (d) subjects where I don’t have a chance of gaining the knowledge necessary to do well when asked about this subject on the bar exam.  For items in category (a) brushing up is all that is necessary.  For (b) you need to concentrate to regain information you once had and bring it back into service.  For (c) pay attention to the fundamentals and ignore everything else.  And for (d) do nothing.
What?  Yes, nothing.  When I give this advice I’m assuming (d) consists of one or two subjects you never had in law school, subjects that are complex, and subjects that if you flunk them are not going to keep you from passing the bar.  Let me give you examples of (d). 
I have taken two bar exams in my life: Illinois in 1968 immediately after I graduated from law school and moved to Chicago, and Indiana two years later when I moved to Indianapolis to begin teaching at the Indiana Indianapolis School of Law.  For the first exam I signed up for and religiously attended a bar review course, read the materials, and passed the exam.  For the second I was teaching law (Contracts and Commercial Law subjects) and I decided not to take another bar review course.  I made this decision for two reasons.  First, I was not that far removed from having just taken that first bar review course and even still had my materials.  Secondly, as I made the decision I was grading the exams of third year students who would be my competitors and I remember thinking, immodestly, “with one hand tied behind my back” I could best their collective efforts on the exam.  The Indiana bar exam, however, had two subjects on it that were not tested in Illinois: Tax and Labor Law.  I had had courses at the University of Texas Law School in both subjects, but I remembered almost nothing about either.  I also decided not to study either, and just devoted myself to reviewing the things that fit in categories (a), (b), and (c) above.  As a consequence the bar examiner who graded my essay exams on these two subjects likely concluded that I’d flunk the exam.  Ah, but the examiners who graded my answers to the Contracts and Commercial Law questions (which took up a much larger part of the exam) assumed I earned the top grade given that year on the exam.  The truth was somewhere in between, comfortably above the pass line.
So you can “punt” on a subject or two, particularly if they are not key components of the exam (such as the core courses every law school offers in the first and second years). 
3. The night before the exam: GET A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP! One of the major things you’ll be tested on is how well your brain works. If you spent the night cramming for the exam with coffee, drugs, or who know what, your brain will be fried and your exam performance dismal. A rested brain is more important than any last minute knowledge gained.
4. If Big Things Go Wrong. What if the unexpected happens—you get sick, a family member dies, you receive a distress call from your best friend to fly across country and rescue him/her—should you postpone the exam? Obviously things can occur that would keep any rational person from taking the exam on time, and I’m not saying otherwise. But here should be your rule: if it is at all possible to take the exam, do so. I’ve too often seen students with the opposite attitude (“I hope something comes up so I can duck the exam!”). A postponed bar exam has a way of never getting done. I’ve known legal careers wrecked because the postponement of the exam was the end of everything.  Don’t let that happen.  Take the damn exam and get it over with.
Call if off only if that is the only rational choice.  There was man who was very sick but nonetheless took the Indiana exam, toughing it out, finishing the whole thing, and then returned after the end of the final day to his hotel room, and died in his sleep.  He was subsequently admitted to the bar, but it was a posthumous honor—not at all what he’ad been planning on.
5. If Little Things Go Wrong. You need to consider ahead of time the small matters that can turn the exam experience into a nightmare, and develop fail-safe backups. I’m referring to such things as getting the date or time of the exam wrong, the alarm clock that doesn’t go off, the car that won’t start, the pen or computer that won’t work, etc.  One year in Ohio an applicant thought that the three day exam started on a Wednesday when it really started on a Tuesday.  Major mistake, that. 
When I took the Illinois bar exam, on the second day thereof, my alarm clock failed to go off, and I’d have slept right through much of the morning session but for the fact that my phone rang at 8 a.m.  It was a friend of mine asking if I’d seen the morning paper: the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia.  I was very sorry for Czechoslovakia, but I was delighted by that phone call.  So you might think ahead how a little help from your friends can be useful in making sure you don’t have unnecessary problems with the only bar exam you plan on ever taking. 

Make sure your understand well ahead of time all the rules of the exam, particularly what you’re allowed to bring with you into the exam and what not, and how to turn in the exam. Learn the honor code and pay attention to its rules.  

B.  Taking the Bar Exam
1. Fill out the exam as instructed. When the starting signal is given, first set up your time schedule. DON'T MAKE MISTAKES ABOUT THIS.
2. The Questions. 

There will be good moments in the bar exam, for example a question on the subject of your seminar paper, or concentrating on your favorite subject in which you made your top grade in law school.  Treasure these moments, but don’t dwell on their glory.  Smile, nail it, and move one. 

On objective questions guess unless told that there are penalties for so doing. (If enough people miss the same objective question the graders will frequently throw it out—so get in there and do your share by missing it too).

On essay questions, read each question carefully, trying to get a sense of its bigger meaning. Issues will jump out at you. This will give you a sense of relief, but it’s no time to relax. Now re-read the question carefully, underlining important points, making marginal notes about the issues or thoughts you want to include. Don't assume away the hard parts and make the exam too easy. This isn't a contest of wits; it's a performance, and you’ll get few points for evading the hard issues.

Don't repeat the facts except as necessary to your analysis. Unnecessarily repeating the facts is a waste of precious time. Good attorneys, however, do use the facts to make their points (“The plaintiff chose to send an email because it was faster than the postal service, thus showing the plaintiff's emphasis on speed”).
What issue should you start with if there’s more than one in a question? Here’s valuable advice: start with the most important issue, the most vital one, the one at the heart of it all. One of the things being tested is whether you can spot what’s vital. If your answer starts with something petty that no lawyer is going to spend much time on, this tells the examiner you don’t know what’s important and what’s not, a bad message to convey. The exam has so much time pressure that if you mustn’t spend your valuable minutes on minutia; you must  hone in on the heart of a controversy.
On essay questions, if you don't know, fake it. What? Yes, fake it. Pretend you’re the monarch of your own jurisdiction and boldly invent the rules. Our law is not so perverse that it deviates much from common assumptions, and your guess will often get you some points, whereas a blank sheet of paper will get you nothing. Some of you reading this are very, very good at this skill, having honed it through years of educational endeavors, and it’s time to strut your stuff.
On the usual law school exams you have time for exploration of lots of things: policy, minor arguments, etc.  But not the bar exam.  The examiners are busy people with large stacks of papers to grade.  They are looking at essay exams with one question only foremost in their minds: what sort of lawyer will this applicant make.  Does he/she know the black letter rules of law and how to apply them?  Therefore make sure you do state all the black latter rules of law as clearly as you can, apply them well, and throw in a policy statement only if you have time.  Keep saying to yourself, “Law, law, law.”  Demonstrate your knowledge of the law.  If you have a pertinent real life comment about what a real lawyer would do (settle this turkey, for example) state that if you are sure it’s right.  Show the examiner what a stellar attorney you will be.

C.  After the Bar Exam
1. If you have more parts of the exam yet to take, stop any thoughts or discussions about this part of the exam immediately and concentrate on the upcoming ones. Panic later, when the complete exam is over.
2. Very important rule: don't do postmortems on the exam by discussing questions with the other applicants. Violating this rule is a sure way to panic yourself. Taken collectively you all know more than any one of you knows individually, so if you want to scare yourself good about the only bar exam you’re ever planning on taking, postmortems are a sure way to do it. If someone starts to talk about the bar exam to you (“Did you see the promissory estoppel issue in question two?”) walk away quickly. You don’t need to hear things you may have missed. Go out and have a drink with non-law students.  Have several.  You have months of waiting ahead of you.  Fill those moments with constructive things, and forget the exam until the happy moment arrives when the results are posted and you learn that you’ve passed.  Then throw a party.  It’s likely you really have just taken your last exam.  That’s worth celebrating.
3. Swearing In Ceremony.  One of the happiest moments of your life is raising your hand and taking the oath that turns you into a lawyer.  Consider that your entire education, starting in pre-school, has led you to this event.  Everyone who loves you will congratulate you.  They should.  Congratulate yourself. 
 So, good luck with this pesky bar exam and with the career that awaits you in the life of the law.  I’m rooting for you.

Related Posts:

“How To Take a Law School Exam,” November 30, 2012;


  1. Nice post! I'd only add one thing to this:

    Don't assume you know how to answer a bar essay question just because you're good at law school exams. It's a very different art form: not difficult, but different. Keep taking those practice essay exams until you get the hang of it.

  2. I'm starting to prepare for this 2015 Bar exam so thank you for sharing these tips. I'd be glad if I can pass the Bar exam and finally become a Filipino lawyer.

  3. I am a very anxious test taker and while I am confident in my knowledge and years of hands on experience, this article has given me some valuable insight! Appreciate the time you took to share your knowledge.

  4. Hey, you have shared such a brilliant post on how to pass the Bar Exam. I am really very thankful to you for sharing this post because at this moment I was in great need of these tips. Will be taking this test in next year so will definitely consider these tips.