Conquering the Bar Exam: A Necessary Rite of Passage into Lawyerhood
I don’t think any law school graduate likes the idea of taking a bar exam anywhere. After three years of grueling and difficult law school work, you would think that would be enough to prove that one has what it takes to go out and learn the practice of law. The day she is hooded and receives her Juris Doctor degree is important and symbolic because every single law school graduate had to show some degree of intelligence and persistence and had to have worked for it because no law school gives away coveted law degrees.
But at the same time that the law graduate recognizes that she has truly earned her law degree, the law school graduation is anticlimactic because she is not quite finished yet. This is because she isn’t considered a “real” lawyer until she earns her license to practice. This means she must place her new “Juris Doctor” degree certificate on her wall and take pride in completing that undertaking – then begin anew with the hellacious process of studying for and preparing to pass a state bar examination.
Many new J.D.s resent it and bemoan it, but they just simply can’t escape it. That’s the way it is whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, no law school graduate, except those under the “diploma privilege” who graduates from a law school in the state of Wisconsin or New Hampshire, can avoid the infamous bar exam if she wants to become a practicing attorney.
Below I have provided ten key pieces of advice that will assist future lawyers in placing the entire bar exam experience into perspective so that they can pass the bar exam, get sworn in to the state of their choice, and fulfill the rite of passage where they make the transformation from law school graduates to attorneys and counselors at law.
1.Understand that the bar exam is an “equalizer” of sorts.
Recognize that there are 205 ABA-approved law schools in the country. They are ranked differently and the quality of instruction and the student bodies are perceived differently based on where a person went to law school. Additionally, some people attend school in different geographic locations with the idea that they will return to their home state or go elsewhere to start their legal careers. Considering that there are so many differences not only in the type of instruction one receives in the different law schools but also in the variations of laws from state to state, by what standard measure can we know that all of these “law graduates” have the minimum level of competency to practice law in a specific jurisdiction? It’s hard to say. One law graduate may have gone to school in New York at a state school, another may have gone to a prestigious Ivy-League private law school in Massachusetts, another a well-respected state school in California, and another a local, regional law school that is recognized in their city and they all want to practice law in the state of Texas. In order to determine that they all have a certain fundamental base of knowledge to practice, all of these people, no matter where they went to school have to take the Texas bar. At the end of the day, they either passed or they didn’t. It doesn’t matter if the person who went to the regional school passed and the person who went to the Ivy-League school didn’t. The one who passed is now an attorney and the one who has not is not. Therefore, the bar is a way of placing all law school graduates on equal footing and if they earn the minimum score required for bar passage, they are now officially “lawyers.”
2. Respect the importance of the exam.
There is no way you can prepare to take the bar examination and pass it without giving the exam all of the respect it requires and that it is due. Passing the bar exam will determine whether you have what it takes to practice law or not in the eye’s of society and the fellow members of the bar. Don’t sit around complaining and coming up with reasons why the test is unfair, how you’ve always done poorly on standardized tests and how it really doesn’t determine whether you can make a good lawyer or not. The reality is that if you want to become a practicing lawyer or be able to take pride in having your license on the wall you have no choice but to take the test – period. Some people will tell you that if you don’t want to practice law, then you don’t need to take the bar and that all it does is allow you to practice in the courts of a particular state.
The truth is that whether or not you want to practice law, you absolutely need to pass some state’s bar exam – sooner or later. Passing the bar exam is not just about the ability to practice law but it is also a ticket to credibility. You don’t want others to question your decision to not practice law and assume that it is based on the fact that you can’t rather than you simply choose not to.
Most people know that law school is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. You might as well bring closure to your legal education by not only having a beautiful certificate indicating that you earned a prestigious Juris Doctor professional degree, but also one stating that you have the rights, privileges and responsibilities of an “Attorney and Counselor at Law.” It may not matter to you now, but understand that it does and will matter. If you respect the exam and the great importance that is placed on it, you will understand that it is up to you to do all that is necessary to pass it.
3. Understand that bar study is like a pledging process and is a necessary rite of passage all lawyers must endure with lessons that far outweigh and outlast the bar exam itself.
You may have heard about or even endured a “pledging” process in order to become a part of an elite organization. It wasn’t easy to get in and you had to endure the pain, the pressures, the paranoia and the sleepless nights to earn your place in that special society. That is what you must also go through to enter the elite world of lawyerhood turning from layperson to lawyer. The tough process of studying for the bar exam for eight weeks or more will help ready you for a two to three-day marathon comprehensive exam that will test you on masses of information. The process is one in which you will make it through – all depending on how badly you want it.
If you have focused on the idea and the heightened social status you will gain by becoming an “attorney at law” and becoming an official part of the association of lawyers known as the “bar”, you must be willing to do absolutely everything within yourself that you can to make that happen. You prove how much you want to be a part of this exclusive society but putting forth the blood, sweat and tears required to get the score you need to beat this exam. Your fellow lawyers who have gone through the process will share that special bond of knowing all that you had to go through to succeed on the bar – hours upon hours of practicing questions, writing essays, reading outlines, listening to and trying to memorize black letter law – at the expense of yourself, your life and your sanity. All of the sacrifice, all for the sake of the bar.
The bar exam is truly a character-building experience that will stretch you and require you to grow beyond your limits. It is an exercise in discipline. It is a test of endurance and stamina in every sense of the word. It is the final hurdle that must be jumped. It is those infamous burning sands before you become an official member of the fraternity. You will have to study like you have never studied before.
After giving the bar everything I could and persisting until I passed it, it helped me realize that I really could do anything that I wanted to if I was willing to sacrifice and put my heart and soul into a goal – a critical life lesson for success that other people can tell you but that you cannot fully appreciate until you’ve experienced it for yourself.
4. Recognize that preparing for the bar exam is very much a mental game as it is an intellectual one and you must have the confidence and the right attitude to pass it – Come up with a motivational theme, song and quote to place you in winning mode
Any person who is able to successfully graduate from law school has what it takes to pass a bar examination. One of the reasons why many don’t may have less to do with their actual abilities and more to do with their attitude toward the exam, confidence and faith in or lack of faith in their own abilities. Along with studying harder than ever, you have to put the time and effort into taking care of your spirit and building yourself up and staying positive throughout the bar exam study period. There will be days when you are depressed, overwhelmed and feel like giving up. You must start out by visualizing yourself as being successful throughout the study period, going into the exam room, and excelling and going into the swearing in ceremony to receive your official license. You must be able to see it and believe it before it actually comes to pass.
You need to feed yourself daily with positive affirmations, self-talk, prayer, meditation, inspirational quotes and sayings, and Bible scriptures that will help to keep you motivated, uplifted and inspired. Listen to inspirational speakers, ministers and songs. Come up with a special theme, song or quote that you remain focused on to lift yourself up. For example, during my bar exam study period I had a theme that was simple “Whatever It Takes” and I vowed that I would be willing to do whatever it took to pass the exam – no excuses. There was also one Bible verse that I hung near my computer that I would look at and reflect upon repeatedly – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” from Jeremiah 29:11. I also started my day reading a special prayer for bar exam success filled with declarations where I declared scriptural promises from the Bible and declared that I would pass the exam. I promised myself that I would do everything within my human abilities and asked God to handle the rest supernaturally. This helped me tremendously. Remember that if you walk in believing you will succeed, there is a greater chance of your succeeding than if you walk in defeated before you even begin. The saying that your attitude determines your altitude rings true indeed.
5. Look at the big picture and put your bar exam first – everything else can wait.
For some people the idea of putting life on hold to study for an exam is unimaginable. Life has gone on and they’ve managed to ace other exams before. Unfortunately, the bar exam is unlike any other exam you’ve ever undertaken. For many, putting their lives on hold and focusing almost singularly on the bar is an absolute necessity in order for them to be able to achieve the goal of passing the bar exam.
Before you begin your study period, try to take care of your bills, distractions, put out fires, tie up loose ends and take care of anything else that can potentially interfere with your ability to just focus in and concentrate on passing the bar. Try to take care of these things beforehand. If something is not urgent, it can wait. You may not be able to go out to the movies or the mall during those months. You may have to neglect some friends. You may have to withdraw from some people you care about who would prefer to spend time with you. You may have to let go of some toxic relationships where there may be people who want to pour their problems on you during a time that you yourself are overwhelmed and particularly vulnerable. It’s okay. If a person is truly there for you, they will understand and be there for you after the bar. As hard as it may be, remember that bar exam study is only a few months. After you have completed the exam, for the most part, things will be the same as before you had to retreat and delve wholeheartedly into bar study.
Focus on the big picture and the significance of studying and understand that your putting the bar exam first could save you from having to go through the painful process of preparing for the exam again if you don’t pass. Trust me, the bar study and preparation process is not something you will want to endure again. And contrary to what some may think, if you’ve done it before does not necessarily make it easier or mean that you can study less the next time around. You have to go at it full force – again.
6. Have a strong and solid support system in place.
There are a lot of things that self-disciplined and self-motivated people can do alone and without much support from anyone else. It is my firm belief that the bar exam is not one of them. Try to put together a support system that may be made up of certain family members, friends, law school classmates, a spouse or significant other, a pal you met over the Internet who is also taking the bar, whoever – and keep the people who are supportive of you and want to see you succeed within that circle during that period.
A support system will be made up of those who will call or leave you messages or send cards to encourage you, those who will send you a care package, send you e-mails of poems or sayings to encourage you and uplift you, or simply a one-line message on those days you are down to say “You will pass!!!!” This you will need to hear. Your band of supporters may go get food for you, offer to babysit your kids, come by and wash your clothes, or simply do anything or make themselves available to do anything to make life a little easier and let you know “you can do it” during your bar study time and those all-important days leading up to and during the bar exam.
My boyfriend, now husband, was my main source of support when I studied. He was there to do whatever he could to help during the bar study. But most importantly, he was there to make sure that I didn’t crack under the pressure during the actual testing days of the bar. He took off of work those days, drove to the city where I was scheduled to take the exam, made hotel arrangements, drove me to the test site, brought me to lunch during the lunch breaks, picked me up after the exam, and joined me in prayer every morning before the morning session and after every lunch break before entering the examination room for the afternoon session. Having him there cheering me on meant the world to me.
When you are doing something as difficult, backbreaking and taxing as the bar exam when only one point can be the difference between passing and failing, having an amazing support system can help put you over the top when you are physically and mentally spent.
7. Recognize that what works for everybody else may not work for you. What works for you as an individual is what counts.
Some people can take one major bar course and pass their state’s bar exam. Many take the major course as well as a supplementary bar course to concentrate on the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) – what many believe is the major determinant of whether an examinee will pass or fail. Before simply following the crowd take the time to do research and talk to people. Find out about the different resources available and figure out what will work for you.
Consider what type of learner you are. Would you do better sitting in a large lecture room full of people, or having audio and CDs at your disposal that you can listen to immediately, and visual flowcharts that you can refer to in order to help break down more complicated subjects? You have to determine what will lead to your success in this endeavor. Following the pack just may not work. If you don’t just blindly follow the crowd and really analyze what you believe you will need to master the subject matter, this may require your having to make huge financial sacrifices – but remember that this is an investment in yourself and in your future and that you are absolutely worth it.
For instance, during my successful preparation for the Texas Bar Exam I listened to the tapes from Celebration Bar Review, the CDs from Reed’s Texas and MBE Bar Review, went through Strategies & Tactics by Kimm Alayne Walton, worked on the MBE problems from Micro Mash and tried to memorize their Bar Exam Alerts, studied the short outlines from the BarBri Conviser, reviewed the Texas Civil and Criminal Procedure outline from a supplementary Texas course designed for the first day short-answer section, completed several Multistate Performance Tests for practice, and used Celebration and BarBri materials to review practice essays. The amount of materials I went through was overwhelming but I felt it was whnt I needed to do to master the material. I read websites, talked to people, e-mailed people and put together a personalized home-study plan that I believed would work for me. I didn’t just take the schedule handed to me by the bar review course and follow that because I had done that previously and recognized that that did not work for me. I had to know myself and realize that on test day I was ultimately responsible for what I did and didn’t know.
Just because one bar review course worked for most people that was fine for them, but I had to be aware of how I best learn and do what was right for me because I was taking that exam and not those other people. I would determine whether I passed or failed. I chose to set myself up for success.
8. Focus more on actively practicing questions and writing essays and less on passively reading long, boring outlines.
The first time I took the bar I did everything they told me to do. I attended the lectures, did all of the reading but saved practicing on all of the essays until the last two weeks after the bar exam course was completed. This approach did not work for me. I realized that I had spent an inordinate amount of time reading long, boring outlines just like I had in law school. I later realized that I had to take on a completely different, more active approach to studying for the bar exam than I did for the law school exams.
Although I diligently read all of the assigned material and followed their calendar and chart, I was simply going through the motions and doing what I was told I needed to do. However, I didn’t take the time to be honest with myself and realize that I was not actually retaining and actively demonstrating my knowledge of the masses of information. I did not spend a significant amount of time practicing on actual test questions, or monitoring my progress. I was working extremely hard, but I wasn’t working smart or efficiently. What may have worked for other exams would not work for the bar.
I later found out that many people who had passed did not read the big outlines but read a mini-outline and memorized the nuts and bolts and actually practiced actual essays – numerous essays for absolutely every testable subject. Coming back to my home state after having attended a school that did not emphasize the bar exam and bar preparation, and after not having taken the majority of the Texas-specific courses, I was undertaking a truly enormous task. I learned the hard way that, just like in sports, you can map out a play but if you don’t practice it, you won’t be able to perform it on game day. If you don’t practice what you expect to perform on test days for the bar exam, when those days come you will likely fall short.
Make certain that you rigorously practice so that you are ready to perform at your optimal level on the days that you take your test. Most important is that you try to take timed tests under actual test conditions so that you will have built up the stamina to work under the strenuous time pressures and are comfortable writing quickly, intelligently and intelligibly when you have to actually perform.
9. If you do not pass the first time, persist. Learn from your past mistakes and resolve to pass the next time.
There are many people who take the bar exam the first time and never take it again. There are those who revisit the exam years later. There are also those who take it repeatedly. The thing you don’t want to do is to take it once, not pass it – and then give up. The power of persistence is exceedingly underrated. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t make it the first time. It may be a public failure but it does not have to be a final failure. People may go on the Internet and know the results before you do. It’s not a big deal. Swallow it, deal with it, get over it, dust yourself off, get back up and be ready to start fighting again with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication. You may have been down, but you don’t have to stay down unless you choose to.
What you have to do is take an honest inventory of how much time you spent studying, what materials you used, and once you receive your results breakdown, consider how you did and what you can do differently the next time to get better results. Many bar takers have given bar study everything they had but still came up short. I’ve been there. Remember that it is only a test and it is one that you can pass with hard work, the right attitude and the right approach. If you don’t pass the first time, all it means is that you didn’t pass the first time. Many people go to law schools where there is no discussion about the bar exam and so you may not have known really what to expect and figured that the bar review course would give you everything you needed to know. If this did not work for you, figure out what will and take it again.
This time you may need to take another course, study at home, study for a longer time period, take off from work, take some additional supplementary courses, or and/or hire a bar exam tutor or coach. What is important is that you pass. Don’t put off for next time what you can accomplish today. Some people say they will take the bar some other time and put it off indefinitely and then it is much more difficult to get back into the law.
No matter what your situation is, remember to simply persist. I recently saw a billboard with a picture of Abraham Lincoln that said “Failed, Failed, Failed and Then . . . Persistence. Pass It On.” They could not have gotten it more right. So many people who have given up not knowing that with one more effort the success was ready to meet them right around the corner – but they gave up one moment too soon. Don’t leave your success prematurely when it’s close by and waiting on you.
10. The bar exam is a straightforward test that is not designed to trick you as you may have experienced with law school exams.
For most law students, their law school exams may have been anything but straightforward. They might have developed a feeling of distrust when it comes to law school exams. The bar is different. If you study very hard and learn the law and practice how to apply it correctly, coherently and clearly, you can pass.
Some law students would perhaps learn a lot of theory in class, study from their outlines and memorize a lot of Black-letter law from commercial outlines and go into an exam room not having any idea of what they are going to face. The bar exam is not like this.
For the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), which bar applicants in almost every state must take, materials providing examples and approaches to the exam are widely available. Likewise, your bar review course, your bar examiners’ website or other supplementary materials should provide you with numerous examples of past bar exam essay and other types of questions. As long as you work with them and practice a lot, you will become comfortable and familiar with them. Learn to understand the questions and what they consider the best answers. Work on them until you do understand. For the MBE, some questions are repeated. For the essay portions, although the questions will not exactly be the same, many of the issues are frequently tested. The main point is that there should not be any major surprises if you prepare hard and thoroughly. If you learn the law and practice on actual questions you should be well-equipped to handle the actual test.
Unlike law school, you don’t have to walk into the bar exam with fear feeling as if you don’t know what you are about to tackle. As long as you buy and fully utilize all the materials you need, you will have more than enough examples and be able to complete just about any type of question they throw your way.
Just remember that the test is straightforward and is not designed to trick and trap you. Consider particularly that the bar exam graders for your essays are actual practicing lawyers. They want to know if you can apply the law to actual facts in a practical way. You don’t have to go into theory and there is no need to try to sound scholarly or speak in theoretical terms. Write clearly and intelligently, answer the questions, use the facts, apply the law and come to a conclusion. They want you to speak in plain English, to use legal terms when necessary and communicate in such a way to show that you know what you are talking about.
There is no mystery behind it. If you put in the study time, the practice time, and focus on what approaches work best for you and how you can rack up the points you need, you will conquer the bar exam!
Copyright © 2005-2018. Evangeline M. Mitchell.