I didn’t pass the bar exam
Reflections from my experience taking the California bar exam…twice.
Monday, November 25, 2013 — The first Monday after the results of the July 2013 California bar exam. To the 55.8% of the folks who passed (4,962 of you lucky, hard-working souls), congrats, well-deserved! Two years ago, however, I was in the other crowd. I was in the crowd that went to work on that following Monday and had to tell my justice and co-clerks (I was clerking for the Alaska Supreme Court at the time), that I hadn't passed. Embarrassed? Yes, a little. Annoyed? Wholeheartedly, passionately. I now knew how I was going to spend my endless winter in Alaska — studying once again for the CA Bar Exam that following February.
The below is my nitty gritty thoughts on the two times I took the bar exam. This isn't meant to be a “you should/shouldn't do this” advice column. If anything, studying for the bar is probably one of the most personal, tailored things one can do. But on this day, for the 3,938 souls who were not so fortunate on the exam, I wanted to share my story with you, so you know you’re not alone, others have been through it, and there is a path out of this setback. Good luck.
July 2011 Exam
Obviously, taking the bar exam is frustrating. You have this amazing high and sense of accomplishment from graduating and then “surprise!” you are NOT a lawyer…yet. Ugh. Some of my friends took that frustration and turned it into productivity: making flash cards, reading a lot, keeping up with the Barbri Pace calendar tool, being obsessed with the test (understandably). This was good.
I, on the other hand, basically rejected the idea of getting overwhelmed by the test. I was so caught up in not letting the test control me, that I never took control of my studying. And honestly, that’s why I didn't pass. Upon reflection, I should have been a lot more aggressive with my studying because the odds were not in my favor. We only had 6 weeks to study due to my graduation date. I had never taken CrimPro or Corporations. I never really liked Contracts. And then there were all those other subjects to study for that no one took in law school like Community Property, Wills and Trusts, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, I did study. A lot. I kept up on the lectures, I read the Conviser Mini Review. Sometimes I listened to a lecture again. I did probably all of the criminal law questions available on Barbri’s website since I did know that was my weakness. I turned in every graded essay to Barbri (though not necessarily on time). But I don’t think my head was ever really in the game 110% because I didn't want to worry about getting overwhelmed. I wanted to try to keep a level head. I couldn't keep up with the Barbri Pace calendar tool. I didn't want to stress out about not keeping up with the Pace program. I took the Barbri MBE practice test and was getting around the “just passing” range. I figured by the time of the test my score would boost up and it would be fine.
Wrong. My MBE score is what killed my chance of passing. My essays were not stellar (my performance tests were very good), but I would have passed if I had gotten the same score I was getting on the Barbri practice tests. The point was that I didn't. I scored lower on the actual bar exam. After taking the MBE portion of the test I knew it was bad. To me, the questions were so different from the Barbri questions. They were phrased weirdly. It totally threw me off. I got confused and became uncertain with my answer choices. And it showed. The Constitutional Law questions, one of my strongest subjects while studying, turned into one of my weakest performances on the MBE.
After that, I wasn't surprised that I didn't pass the bar. I was still sad, and annoyed, and frustrated. I had kept hoping I passed by the skin of my teeth. But what I learned from this first experience is that the bar exam is not one of those things you just want to skate by. You want to own it, dominate it, and leave trampled in the ground where it belongs as you walk victoriously away.
February 2012 Exam
I exaggerate — if you pass you never know how you did, so there’s no way to know if you dominated the test. But my point is that when I left the testing center the second time, I didn't feel good (I don’t think you can ever feel good about this test), but I felt better and more confident.
After reviewing my score sheet from July 2011, I knew I had to up my MBE and my essays. I decided not to waste any time on performance tests other than to listen to the lectures again. I reluctantly used Barbri again since they give you a “free” course for the subsequent test if you don’t pass the first time. I say reluctantly because I wholeheartedly think the Barbri questions are just a little off. And for me, that confused me. I decided to buy Strategies & Tactics for the MBE which discusses the kinds of questions asked on the MBE. Barbri never talks about how the questions are phrased. I like learning this kind of stuff — sort of like figuring out the backstory of how a question is crafted to figure out how to get to the answer they want. I did this also for the LSAT, so I should have realized I would have liked this approach for the Bar exam as well. The book also has only real MBE questions. (Oh, and on the test date, some of those questions seemed frightfully similar to the ones in the book.) I didn't do a single Barbri MBE question — only the ones out of this book and it’s companion. Something I found helpful was writing out by hand the statements of law for the correct answer choices when I got a question wrong. I also wrote out the correct statements of law for wrong answer choices that I had picked. There were definitely areas I was consistently getting wrong: search and seizure, defamation, first amendment. By the end I felt more comfortable with these hotspot areas.
I did all of the Barbri AMP, but I’m not sure how much that helped. I know memorization was an issue for me so I liked that this was set up just to be drills. However, I can’t remember if I actually wound up using any of the things I drilled on the actual test.
Also, I hadn't really figured it out completely at the time of the July test, but there’s a specific way to answer essay questions that contravened with how I generally think and write: basically, throw up everything you know on this subject even if you know it’s wrong/irrelevant to that particular set of facts. The way I would normally think would be: “Well, obviously _____ is not relevant, so I don’t need to talk about it.” Wrong. You have to “show you deserve to be a lawyer” by talking about everything, even irrelevant stuff. Do not have a filter. If you think of it, put it down on the essay even if it’s just to say at the end of the description, “Oh but this doesn't apply to this set of facts.” It took me a while to learn how to write like this.
I worked full time while studying for the Bar in February. I didn't take any time off. Sometimes I had to do work in the evenings which meant I didn't even have time to study many nights. And yet I still passed. While I think it helped that I had studied the material once before, I think what was more important was my focus. Whenever I studied, I tried my best to be totally present. No Netflix/Hulu playing in the background (which I did very regularly the first time studying). All in all, I spent less hours studying the second time around, but they were better hours. Also, what I found was that folks were eager to help me however possible. My roommate often hung out with friends outside of the apartment to give me some studying space. My boyfriend came up to Alaska to take care of me for the last two weeks — mainly helping with laundry and meals and other chores while I crammed.
Lots of people gave me advice the first time around as to how to study. I tried to listen, tried it out, and didn't really find a groove. I just never felt in control of my studying. I think had I been more aggressive in my studying, I would have figured out some system to get the stuff into my head better and have that command over my time, energy, and brain space. But I didn't give myself that opportunity, and it was hard for me to acknowledge that. I regret not meeting the exam head on the first time and instead thinking I could sidestep it and “get by.” What I learned was that sure, you may be burned out from law school or your job or life or whatever, but the bar exam is just something you have to deal with assertively to give yourself the best opportunity of passing. No way around it. Most folks figure that out the first week of studying, but it took me a bit longer.