Regina E. Gray, L’98 (Pennsylvania)
Passing the bar exam takes hard work, a willingness to refocus your mindset from law school to bar exam, and the courage not to give up. I recently passed the Pennsylvania bar, and will be re-taking the Delaware bar this summer. The first thing to do is to realize that as much hype as there is surrounding the bar exam, it’s really just a test. It is of course very important to your career, but it’s still just a test made up by some lawyers in your state. Any test can be passed if you apply yourself and focus on thinking the way these folks are thinking and writing the answers the way they want to see them written. It’s a difficult, draining and seemingly unfair test, but it can be passed. What kept and keeps me going in studying for the bar exam is looking at all the people who DID pass, realizing that most of them are not geniuses by any means, and realizing that if THEY could do it, I can DEFINITELY do it! There is no reason why anyone who successfully completes law school can’t pass any bar exam, no matter how “tough” it’s supposed to be, no matter what your class rank is, no matter what your background, etc. It’s a different world. After you graduate forget all about Law Journal, Moot Court and all those things that define you as a ‘success’ in law school, and move on to Bar Land, where life is totally different.
Since a lot of my colleagues are going to pass on study tips and time management strategies, and Professor Berry is chock full of useful information as to how to study, I’m going to focus primarily on your mindset getting to the exam as well as the application process, which is a test in and of itself.
Before you can even take a bar exam, you have to decide what state you want to practice in and then fill out the state’s application form and file it by the stated deadline. You need to start preparing for this ordeal NOW, because these people want to know absolutely everything about your life. You also have to be ready for the expense and the time it’s going to take to fill out the application. These applications are usually due either early Spring semester or around graduation time, so plan accordingly. Be very aware of the filing dates and costs, and start getting your application ready at least a month ahead of time, because you don’t know what information is going to be difficult to obtain. Also make sure that you know whether the drop dead date requires the papers to be FILED (in the office) on that date or merely POSTMARKED. Usually the drop dead date means that the papers must be in the office on the date specified. They take no excuses as to why it’s late, so make sure it’s there on time, even if you have to hand carry it or overnight it. Also, if you’re sending it, make sure you do it certified so that if there is a problem, you have the timely postmark.
The bar examiners will want a lot of extra information, also. For example, in addition to the $400 application fee, I had to get fingerprinted, get a criminal history report from every jurisdiction where I’ve ever lived, worked or went to school, get college and law school transcripts, a credit report, driving records from every state I’ve held a license in and tell them about every job I’ve worked in the past 10 years. Some states like Delaware require every job you’ve ever held since age 18. If you’re much past 18, as I am, this can be difficult to compile, so be prepared to first recall a lot of ancient information and provide documentation if for some reason McDonalds doesn’t still have your personnel records from when you worked there 6 years ago during a summer break. They’re also going to want letters from people you’ve worked for and with, so make sure you know some folks that are willing to vouch for your character. This does NOT include employers, since they get a separate letter anyway. The most important thing to bar examiners is your character and fitness. They ask for all this information so that they can assure themselves that you are fit to be a member of the bar in their state. Don’t worry that you won’t be admitted if your record isn’t absolutely clean - if you’ve ever been arrested, have bad credit, had a DUI, got fired from a job, whatever. The important thing is that you DISCLOSE everything, not so much that they care what you did. It goes worse for you if there’s something shady in your past, you cover it up, and they find out from some other source. You can pass the exam and still fail the character and fitness test, so don’t think that the exam is the only hurdle you have to come across. But again, think of some of the shady people you know that are now licensed attorneys, and you’ll realize that your chances of crossing that hurdle are pretty darn good. And remember, it’s just another form of hoop jumping - same as a lot of your law school experiences. Remember it’s just a means to an end and so don’t take it personally.
You really need to take a bar review course your first time around, no matter how smart you are. It’ll help you focus, it’ll give you the discipline to sit for long periods of time, and the course usually provides a study/testing schedule that you can alter to fit your own needs. I think Bar-Bri is the only thing going right now, unless you’re going to take Micromash or some other computerized testing system. I’d recommend Bar-Bri over that, unless you’re really self directed or just don’t have Bar-Bri money and there’s no other way around it. Bar-Bri will cost you less if you enroll now - you definitely pay more if you enroll right before graduation. If you’re not sure what state you’re taking, you can always just pick one and transfer whenever you wish. PLEASE take advantage of an essay testing course geared towards your state - that’s where a lot of us fall down. PMBR is an excellent supplemental course for the Multistate- the questions are more indicative of what you’ll get on the bar exam than the ones Bar-Bri provides. They have 3 day and six day - either is excellent. In a pinch, do the 3 day close to the time of the exam. If you have the funds, the six day gives more intensive instruction on each subject area. If you’re really flush, you can take both, but I don’t think it’s necessary. With a little discipline, however, you can get excellent results from a book called “Strategies, Tips and Tactics for the Multistate Bar Exam” by Kimm Alayne Walton, J.D. It’s about $30 at the bookstore or Lerner’s, and if you use that, also send for some practice questions from the MBE people and borrow last year’s Multistate test materials from someone. The book’s explanations are very clear and concise, and there are lots of practice questions
In terms of study preparation while you’re in law school, what I found helpful was paying enough of my Bar-Bri fee in time to take advantage of the Early Bird Multistate classes. It basically allows you to sit in on the lectures before you graduate - they’re given at Georgetown in about April or May. They cover the six Multistate subjects - Evidence, Criminal Law/Procedure, Property, Torts, Contracts, Con Law. I wouldn’t stress out over actually studying the material- it’s just a good way to get reacquainted with the subjects and see how your bar review course is going to run. Take the notes and just absorb (they give you pre-printed fill-in-the-blank handouts with most of the lectures). You’ll see the same lectures again when the course actually starts, and you’ll feel more relaxed knowing you’ve refreshed your recollection in those areas. You’ll also get a taste of what your summer is going to be like as you sit for 2-3 hours at a time listening to lectures.
The best way to prepare right now is concentrate on getting your graduation requirements done and enjoying your third year. The bar review course will start about two weeks after you graduate, and that’s more than enough time to start really preparing for the bar, as long as you have your study plan in place before you start. The course, unlike law school, will guide you as to exactly what you need to study. The bar examiners basically want to know if you know the law and can apply it to practical situations- they’re not all that interested in theory and all that stuff that law professors think is important. They want to know if you know the way things are done in the state you’re seeking to be barred in, and you slant your answers accordingly. Professor Berry’s CPRAC method is excellent - it worked for me this time around! You must of course know the law cold, have a consistent study schedule with time out for some relaxation and the inevitable emergency, and have a support system to help you keep your confidence up when the dark days when you think you can’t do it come around. Fear is the biggest hindrance. The bar exam is billed as this dark and scary monster, and the bar examiners let you think that way. Don’t worry about the passage rates - there are plenty of people who pass on the first try, and there’s no reason you can’t too. Just don’t give the exam more credit than it’s due before it’s time for you to focus exclusively on it. But when it IS time to study for the exam, that’s what you do, first and foremost. NO EXCUSES! Give equal time to both your essay writing and multistate skills, and don’t procrastinate on the subjects that you feel least comfortable with, hoping you’ll get them by osmosis or something. Those will be the things that the bar examiners will test you on, since most other folks don’t feel comfortable in those areas, either.
Don’t overload! My first time out, I tried to use everything and anything that I thought would help me pass, and spent too much time worrying. I took Bar-Bri, PMBR 3 AND 6 day, an essay course, and attended a HUSL-sponsored bar exam seminar. All very good methods, but entirely too much of too many people’s opinions. If I had to do it over again, I’d have done Bar-Bri, the essay and the 3 day only. Pick what methods work the best for you and stick to them, no matter what “everyone else” is doing. Don’t let fear blind you to what works best for you and what will best facilitate your learning throughout the process. Of course, pick those methods from the outset when you’re formulating your plan - don’t just decide to have a plan midway through your study process.
KEEP GOING! There will be days when you just don’t feel like going on or you simply can’t study anymore. Take a break when you need to, but realize that your goal is to become a licensed attorney and come back after you’ve regained your perspective.
Don’t let folks who’ve never taken a bar exam in their life and don’t ever plan to tell you how to do things! Your mama, your significant other, your non-law friends mean well (some of them don’t, but that’s another story) but they don’t know what you’re going through or exactly how much effort you need to put in to achieve the results you want. Your goal is to become a licensed attorney, and these couple months of intensive study are going to get you there. The people who really care about you will be on board and will sacrifice for and with you. If you’re surrounded by negative people, get off by yourself for that time period if at all possible and do what you have to do.
Take care of yourself! Bar exam study is not an excuse to not eat right, not sleep, not exercise and not have any fun. Your time is structured, but you can’t go into a bar exam stressed out, sick and tired.