How to Pass the Bar Exam

From Hastings-I:

Attention 3Ls: you can, you will, pass the bar. Here's a simple exercise you should do, daily if it makes you feel good, to help you reach that goal.

Find a mirror.
Look into it.
Say, “Of course I can pass the bar. Everyone knows that.”

OK, you think I'm being silly. I would have thought so too, if I hadn’t had a chance encounter at an airport with one of you during spring break. An encounter with a student who is very bright, who was very successful before starting law school, who is doing perfectly well here – right there in the middle of the pack, GPA-wise, with most of you who are similarly bright and talented. And there it was: tremendous anxiety about passing the bar.

These past three years focus on the “bar passage” issue has been a bit intense. I recall some of you as freaked-out 1Ls who read a Dean’s letter early in your days here as saying, “study three years, then you flunk the bar.” Can we focus on the facts? The truth, I believe, will set you free (to concentrate on studying for the bar …).

You don’t need to get an “A” on the California (or any) Bar to pass. You only need the functional equivalent of straight-C's, or even below. Bar exams test competence, not excellence. You've been far more than merely competent in most of your law school work.

I know it's hard to look around at one's own group of friends and wonder, where are the 38 percent or 40 percent or whatever, destined for failure on that first try? I felt the same way: everyone I’m studying with is really bright. Who's going to flunk?

Insight arrived during the lunch break after the first morning of what was then a 2 1/2-day all-essay test. On line at the women’s restroom, a friend and I listened to a group of women ahead of us, renewing their acquaintance: they apparently had met before, more than once, while taking the bar exam. They were sharing their strategy for success: “This time I studied Contracts, Crim Law, and Corporations,” one said. Another chimed in with her 3 or 4-course strategy. Ten subjects were mandatory that year, and four optional. What a relief: we had found the flunk rate. . . .

Most critically, while most bar statistics are not where we want them to be (every failure is painful to that individual and to all of us), look at them more carefully. Students in the top half of the class pass the California Bar at a rate very close to 100 percent. The next quartile isn't terribly far behind. I'm certain that if we were to interview everyone who flunked in this group, we'd find that Something Happened. Parents and grandparents get sick or die, spouses and lovers leave, friends or family members get diagnosed with dread diseases. One of my advisees in the Class of 2005 got sick herself – with symptoms that were both disturbing and anxiety-inducing and also interfered with her ability to study. She took the test anyway; she didn't make it, but gained familiarity with it that was useful when she took it again in February. Bad things happen – beyond our control.

Good things can interfere with the bar, too.
A young relative of mine (with great grades from a top law school) happily arrived in San Francisco after graduation to study for the bar – and to reunite with her fiancee after a year's separation. Togetherness and wedding planning were joyous, but distracting. (The wedding was lovely, the young marrieds are happy, and she passed the next time.)

What about the bottom quartile? Yes, their bar pass statistics are lower – but that's no surprise. The bar exam tests the same limited subset of skills necessary for successful lawyering as we test in law school, and in basically the same ways. But the glass is half full, not half empty. You’ve made it through law school! You can jump over this hurdle and into a successful career too. You absolutely can. (And if you don’t believe me, contact me and I'll introduce you to one of my favorite recent graduates, who struggled mightily at Hastings and inhabited the bottom of his class. On his second, but not first, attempt he followed the advice below, passed the bar, and is now practicing law. I'm sure he will tell you: you can do it too.)

Here's what you must do to pass the California Bar, whatever your GPA.

1. Take a bar review course. Yes, yes, I know – you’ve spent a fortune on law school, and now we’re telling you to take a crash course to pass this test.

I’m willing to bet that virtually 100 percent of law school faculty took a bar review course (yes, we all were hot shot law students). Law school classes are about knowledge in depth. The bar is about the basics of a whole bunch of courses all at once. Bar review employees spend their time studying bar exam questions, figuring out what issues are “hot,” working on the tricks of the exam trade. That’s their niche, and they’re pretty good at it.

But bar review courses are expensive. Please consider what it costs you not to pass. It puts off your marketability as a lawyer for six months, which has an even bigger price tag.

If you can't afford/can't get a loan for bar expenses: get ye to Financial Aid. There's even a brand-new faculty-funded loan program for this very purpose. Check it out. We think you can pass – and we’ve put our money on it.

2. Give yourself over to the advice of the bar review people, even when it feels odd and anti-intellectual. I felt like a total fool spitting back the two short paragraphs I'd memorized on choice of law at the behest of a bar review instructor who explained that the issue had come up in 3 of the last 4 bar exams (even though choice of law/conflicts wasn’t itself a bar course). But I did it (not that I had much choice: I didn’t know the subject), and so did all of my bar study buddies.

Also keep in mind that the bar exam does not, cannot, reward creativity. Each essay by necessity has a group of graders, who must score in as close to an identical manner as is humanly possible. So if you are the person who usually sees, and wants to follow, the unusual path – even though professors may often have responded with delight that you'd seen something they had not even considered – turn it off for 3 days. On the bar exam, go for the standard route.

3. Give yourself the gift of time. Clear the weeks between graduation and the bar exam of everything possible except bar study, and time to clear your head with exercise and a bit of leisure. Do not work; even a boring, mindless job is a bad idea. Yes, this will cost you, but it will cost you more not to pass. You’re already in debt: borrow some more to give yourself two critical months.

If you have family responsibilities, think creatively now about how to be released from them for just two months. Call in every chit you have from friends and family members you’ve helped in the past. If you are the responsible one in your family – and have always taken on burdens others haven't been willing to accept – you may feel you are not entitled to assistance. But you are. This is the time when your family needs to step up and help you. Since your success will be to everyone’s benefit, don't feel the slightest twinge of guilt for asking (insisting!).

Your spouse will surely understand your need to “disappear” into bar study for two months (not to mention — under the laws of community property he or she will have a lot to gain from your enhanced earning capacity). You can’t “disappear” from children (nor will young ones really understand why you need space and time). You can, however, recall all those friends and family members who’ve said, “Your children are so much fun.” Offer them more fun – let them help! (The grandparents are too strict/too lenient/too spoiling? Your kids will survive for two months. Take the help.) If your children are too young to fully comprehend the passage of time, consider making something like one of those little advent calendars for them. You can check off each day, and they can see time move toward when mommy or daddy will be fully human and “with them” once again.

4. And, to return to the message at the beginning: believe in yourself. You can and you will pass the bar. If not on the first try, then on the second (many fine lawyers have taken it more than once). Putting in the effort, following the advice of the bar exam prep experts, and seeing that person in the mirror as a success are the prescription for bar passage.

Congratulations on graduation! I hope you have an uneventful but productive bar pass summer.

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