Howard University

James W. Ferguson, L’99 (District of Columbia)

The avenues to success in passing the bar are so are varied that one must acknowledge that what works for some will not work for others. Notwithstanding this caveat, what follows is the approach I used to prepare for and pass the District of Columbia bar exam.


Some of you, like me, did not take a prep course prior to taking the LSAT and did pretty well. The bar exam is not the LSAT and pretty well wonít cut it. You must pass. It is imperative that you pass. If the last two sentences do not reflect your thinking, you are not mentally prepared to prepare for the exam. If you do not follow any other of the suggestions contained herein, TAKE A PREP COURSE, TAKE A PREP COURSE, TAKE A PREP COURSE!!

During the first few weeks of law school, when so little made sense, there were tables offering discounts for bar review courses. I did not know what a bar review course was. When I did come to understand what a bar review course was, it made no sense to me that I would need to pay almost $2000 for a course to teach me what I should have learned over the past three (3) years of law school. Even it you agree with my reasoning, TAKE A PREP COURSE, TAKE A PREP COURSE, TAKE A PREP COURSE. Although my reasoning is logical on its face, the logic fails because it is based on a false premise. It assumes that law school teaches you all you need to know in order to pass the bar. While there may be an exception to every rule, the rule here is as follows: Law school does not teach you everything you need to know to pass the bar.

I, like many others, learned this truth while studying for the bar. It smacked me like a two by four. Not only did I have to know/remember information from first year torts (res ipsa; zone of danger; firecrackers, aaaghhh…), but I also had to learn things that I never even heard of before. I was not a happy camper. But because I took two review courses, I learned early on that I had a long way to go. If you are reading this as a first year law student, you may accept this at face value and/or shrug it off as no big deal. However, if you are hearing this for the first time as a third year, you are probably less than pleased. You have every right to be. Now get over it. If you can answer the following question correctly, and heed your answer, you have full command of what you must do to address this issue.

Q: If law school does not teach you everything you need to know to pass the bar, where do you learn what you need to know?


When you begin to truly focus on the bar exam, you will have an emotional response. Expect it. Faced with the realization of what is at stake, preparing for the bar exam will, much like law school, cause most people to pass through a range of emotions including, but not limited to, anticipation, agitation, and fear. It is imperative that you not let your emotions become your master. Instead use these emotions as tools to drive you toward your goal. Because your emotions will not simply disappear, you must either make them a tool to assist you in reaching your goal, or they will be your enemy and stand in your way. For me the driving force was fear. Fear of having to offer some inadequate excuse for not passing. Fear of being viewed as an example of how blacks canít compete against whites on an exam absent points for color. Fear of not being able to keep my job as an associate at a major firm. Maybe most of all, fear that having gotten into a major firm where there is only one other black male attorney, I would provide cannon fodder for those who justify/attribute the dearth of blacks to intellectual inferiority. This overriding sense of fear remained with me, from the moment I began to focus squarely on the task at hand, until I received the results. Ultimately, fear became my friend. It became the motivating force that drove me to put in the time that was necessary so that I could pass the bar the first time. Make your emotions your footstool that lifts you that much higher to getting over the bar.


When I was in the military our training motto was “the more you bleed in training, the less youíll bleed in war.” I took little consolation from this little ditty while roaming through the woods carrying 50 lbs. of equipment on a wet winter night at 3:30 AM. (Yes, I know, but if I havenít been to sleep yet my body says its night). But the point for our purposes is not the value of bleeding but the value of proper preparation. If you properly prepare yourself for taking the bar exam, the exam itself will be anticlimactic. It will be easier than the many hours of class attendance, practice exams and flash cards that youíve pushed yourself through. You will find yourself in the exam knocking out questions as if youíve seen them before (which you will have since there are only so many ways to list the elements of a burglary), and waiting for the hard questions. If you prepare properly, you will spend much more time waiting for the hard questions than you will spend answering them. PRACTICAL ADVICE

Multiple Choice Practice Examinations

I took every multiple choice practice examination in the BAR-BRI books. Yes, every examination in the BAR-BRI books. The practice examinations go through three levels, I worked through all three levels for each subject area. Amongst the many benefits that I received as a result were the following:

  1. I began to see patterns in the questions. Of course you must be careful to read the entire question and each of the answers, but as previously stated, there are only so many ways to list the elements of burglary. Because many of the questions are taken from and/or based on previous bar exam questions, the patterns were similar to those I found on the actual exam.

  2. It helped me to determine what I did not know. One of the problems with having so much information to study, is determining where to start and what to focus on. Because of the large number of examinations that I took, the large body of results inevitably showed areas of strengths and weaknesses. Like most people I enjoy working on my strengths. But with the information at hand, I was able to attack my weaknesses and thereby make valuable use of my time. Additionally, remember that you do not know all the areas that will be covered on the exam, thus, you ignore your weak areas at your own peril. You must attack your weak areas.

Flash Cards After taking a practice examination, I used the answer key to create flash cards. For each question I answered incorrectly, I wrote down the question on one side of an index card and the answer on the other. In the beginning, flash cards will pile up faster than you care to imagine. But flash cards are easy to carry with you for studying, on the train, on the bus, while standing in line, at the doctors office, etc. I kept my flash cards organized by subject and went through each subject in order. If I found a particular subject area difficult, I moved it up in order so that I had to deal with it again sooner than later. It wasnít fun, but I donít think having to explain why you didnít pass the bar is would be much fun either, so get to work.

As I went through flash cards, (which I did daily), each time I answered a question correctly, that card went in a separate pile. Each question I answered incorrectly went to the bottom of the cards waiting to be answered. Yes, some cards went to the bottom several times. Yes, it was frustrating. But, remember the preparation should be harder than the actual exam. Class Attendance BAR-BRI offered classes in the day and in the evening. I choose to attend the evening classes. My main reason for taking evening classes was that I realized that I was likely to see many classmates in the day session and frankly I didnít want a social session. I wanted to learn what I needed to know to pass the bar. Some of you may like the idea of knowing people in your class. You make the call, but remember why you are there.

Try not to miss any classes. You will not always want to go Ė go anyway. If you miss a class, make it up. Get the tape, see the video, but donít blow it off. Prepare for class. Much like law school, if you go to class waiting to be taught, as opposed to preparing and going to class for elucidation, it is going to be difficult. (I wish someone had told me that first year). ROUTINE It is imperative that you get a routine. My daily routine Monday through Friday was as follows:

  1. Listened to lecture while eating breakfast
  2. Took at least two practice exams.
  3. Reviewed practice exams and prepared flash cards.
  4. Listened to lecture while eating lunch
  5. Reviewed notes from previous class.
  6. Prepared for class.
  7. Reviewed flash cards.
  8. Reviewed flash on way to and return from class.
  9. Went for a run while listening to taped lectures