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The bar exam

Each year, thousands of aspiring lawyers from across the country sit for their jurisdiction’s bar exam.  It’s the the test of the examinees’ “minimum competency” to be a lawyer.

That might be different this year and for the time being given the recent uncertainty surrounding the future of meetings of ten or more people. That doesn’t change this fact:

The bar exam is difficult.

This is for several reasons. It’s a two-day (used to be three-day in California) test comprising hundreds of multiple choice questions and hours of essay writing.

In addition, the amount of information tested on the bar is astronomical.  A typical bar exam tests each foundational topic of law from the first year of law school, higher-level areas of law from 2L/3L, plus state-specific topics, in many jurisdictions.

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I do not work for a bar preparation company, the NCBE, and I am not a bar exam “expert” by any stretch.  I do, however, have my finger on the pulse of how one today should go about preparing for the bar exam, having myself sat for and passed the Uniform Bar Exam in Maryland in July 2019.

Methods

In preparing for the bar I not only researched the material, but also the exam itself and techniques to stay sane and study efficiently.  I mostly accomplished this by reading on Reddit, TopLawSchools, and other law school forums.  In formulating these suggestions I also spoke with friends, colleagues, and mentors who have taken the bar to gain insight into how others dealt with the ordeal.

Whether you’re preparing for the bar, are in law school, or are thinking about applying to law school, this post has something for everyone.  In addition, these suggestions should apply no matter what route you’ve chosen for preparation–whether you’re using BarBri, Kaplan, Themis, self-study, or any other method.

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One final thought before we jump into the suggestions:  Remember YMMV–your mileage may vary.  Each of these suggestions will not work for everyone. 

When I read that Blake Masters passed the California bar in 100 hours of study I knew that I would take more time than that, but also knew that his methods might be good to look at. I took far more time than that. The point is, take what’s suggested here and elsewhere and use it to create your own plan of attack for the bar.  That’s what I did for each of my suggestions in this article.

1. Bar prep starts 1L

Many people make the mistake of thinking that bar exam starts the summer after graduating law school.  The reality is that it starts before you even sign up for classes your first year of law school.

Why is this? Bar exam preparation is “supposed” to be a review of what you learned in law school. 

If you take each class tested on your jurisdiction’s bar in law school, each topic you review during bar prep should be more or less a review of what you learned in school.  Add to the fact that you’ve likely prepared an outline and took a final exam for each of these classes, it will be at least the second time you’ve written essays for each of these topics.

So what should you do?  Make a list of the subjects that are tested on your jurisdiction’s bar exam before 1L and make sure to take each of those classes in law school.  During 1L you want to have a plan of what classes you will take during what semester for your entire three years during.

It’s not a good idea to be learning an entire area of law like criminal procedure or secured transactions when you only have 10-12 weeks to review each area of law and practice actually answering bar exam questions.

2. Know the exam

You need to know the rules of the game you are playing if you want to win.  Just like in law school where you wanted to know what the professor wanted to see on the exam, you need to know what the bar examiners in your jurisdiction are expecting to see in your answers.

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In addition, you should look into how the various parts of the exam are scored compared to your progress so you can gauge how you might do. 

During my preparation, I would take time each day to research the test itself and see what others suggested online in forums, user groups, on Reddit, and bar exam blogs.  For instance, one post I found showed how an examinee could pass the UBE by performing really well on the MBE and not doing as well on the MEE and vice-versa.  This helped me understand that I did not need to get a 100% on each section to pass.

3. Use what works best for you

The techniques you used in law school will serve you well while you’re preparing to take the bar.  There’s no need to spend all four years at university plus three years of law school learning to study and perform a certain way and then trying to reinvent the wheel for the bar exam.

Think about the exercises that helped you succeed in law school and college and do those things.  If you did not learn well in law school by attending group study sessions or reviewing flash cards, it’s very likely these methods will not serve you during bar prep either.

4. Review old outlines

Why else should you take all bar classes in law school?  Those outlines you made during law school are good for more than just studying for one final–they’re useful to clear confusing points of law you re-encounter during bar preparation.

The books the large bar prep companies provide contain pretty much everything you could need to know for the bar.  But if the explanations are not making a lot of sense, you can look at your old law school outlines for clarification.  Your outlines from law school may also contain recent cases that may be illustrative of novel issues that could come up on your jurisdiction’s bar exam–another benefit.

A word of warning, though:  your time during bar prep is very limited, so you do not want to be breaking out old outlines and sifting for minutiae. You will lose time you could be spending doing actual practice.  When in doubt, use the smallest outline first, then move to the more detailed outlines to clear up the finer points you need clarified.

5. Follow your study plan

But do not be afraid of being flexible.  It’s important to not beat yourself up and get to every little thing during bar prep.  You should spend quality time with the material. That’s more important than rushing to get everything done for the day that your bar preparation company assigns.

In fact, your personal study plan might include flash cards and other study tools that your bar prep company did not assign.  This is even more of a reason to not get worked up about every little assignment.

6. Lectures

Go online.  Speed them up.

I took Barbri’s course and there were two options to attend class:  (i) in person or (ii) on-demand online.  If you’re a person who absolutely needed to attend all lectures in law school to learn, these suggestions is one that might not be for you.

Truthfully, I never went to a single in-person lecture during bar prep.  The in-person classes played the same video as the one you could watch at home in your pajamas, but at normal speed. 

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When I watched the lectures at home I would put the lecture on 1.5x to 2x the normal speed and follow along with my outline materials provided by BarBri.  This was slow enough to understand everything.  A bonus is you also always have the option to back the video up 10 seconds to see what you missed.  That’s an option you don’t have in the classroom.

So versus sitting in class where you have to watch lectures at normal speed, you could get the information in half the time at home and can go back to clear up points you missed.  This gives you far more time to do practice questions and create/review flashcards.  Speaking of practice questions…

7. Practice questions

This is where most of the actual “bar preparation” occurs.  Many people spend far too long watching lectures and writing and even re-writing their notes instead of digging into some actual bar exam questions.

It’s critical to start doing practice questions early and often during your bar preparation.  The common wisdom I have seen is to shoot for answering between 1,500 to 2,000 practice problems over the course of your study.

For me, this meant doing about 30-50 questions per day for the first half of my study and then doing around 75+ per day during the last several weeks of study.  During the last week of prep, I was doing over 100 multiple choice questions per day.

My typical day would be to get up, eat breakfast, watch a lecture (if I still had lectures to watch), and then move into practice questions and essays.  I would do a set of BarBri practice questions, then an essay. Then I would alternate like that until I had reached my goal for the day.

A common method I have seen on Reddit and elsewhere is to sign up for BarMax or Adaptibar, which have large libraries of actual bar questions released by the NCBE.  When you sign up for BarBri or Themis you are not actually taking official bar exam questions. BarMax and Adaptibar claim that you have a better chance of passing by using official questions from the jump.  I have not used these services, but I continue to hear good things.

8. Sleep

This goes without saying, but I put it here anyway because it’s important.

There’s a lot of information tested on the bar.  The multiple choice questions are difficult and designed to trip up examinees.  The essays often involve fringe areas of law or require you to work out several issues at once involving different areas of law.

Sleep will help you not only move through lectures quickly, but you will retain more information and ultimately be sharper when practicing questions and writing essays.  There is no part of bar preparation where sleep is not critical.

Also, make sure to get a lot of sleep each day before the exam. More sleep is more valuable than more study the day before the bar.  (I would not suggest studying the day before the bar exam anyway.  Save your energy and try to relax.)

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9. To flash card or not to flash card

When I was studying for the bar, a lot of people suggested Critical Pass flashcards.  While the reviews are glowing and they are no doubt useful for many people, you could save several hundred dollars and get extra practice in by making your own physical flashcards or by using Quizlet.

I made a flash card for each term or test I encountered during the substantive lectures, written out by hand.  If there was a confusing area of law or a multi-factor test I encountered during a lecture, I would make a flash card.

Then every few days I would review each flash card to see if I knew the information.  If I got a card right I would put it aside. Then I would go through the pile until I could recall each card correctly.  Doing this solidified the actual black letter law.

In addition, I highly suggest hand-writing flash cards, as the beneficial effects of hand-writing on recall as compared to typing are documented.

10. Practice essays

This could also go in “Practice questions” but I think it deserves its own spot on the list.

The wisdom I read while I was studying was to aim to complete at least five essays (MEE) for each subject on the bar before the exam.  This way you will get a feel for almost any type of subtopic that could come up for each area of law and will have at least something to say should the issue arise.

I think spending a lot of time writing essays up front is wasted if you do not have at least an ~okay~ grasp of the material.  I did an MEE essay every few days and as directed by my Barbri plan, but not until the last four weeks was I answering several MEE questions per day.  Before that time, I would do an MEE question every couple days, and rarely would I do them open book.

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Writing out entire answers is useful for organizing answers and learning to use real words to get your analysis across.  As time was winding down and the exam drawing near, however, I started to opt more for outlining my answers instead of writing them out fully.  I would typically give myself about 15 minutes to outline an answer. This is because BarBri told me that for a 30-minute MEE, you should spend half the time outlining an answer and the rest of the time actually writing.

Bonus:  Make sure to grade each MEE answer or outline answer to a model answer, if provided.  And make sure to be conservative in your grading to keep yourself realistic about your performance.

Author: Ryan Ullman

Ryan Ullman is an attorney at the boutique law firm Spence | Brierley in Baltimore, Maryland. He is particularly interested in technology, productivity, peak flow states, music, and the outdoors.

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