Brian Hahn, founder of Make This Your Last Time and a second-time passer of the California bar exam, is back with a two-part post about creating a methodical way to practice for the California bar exam. Welcome back, Brian!
Contrary to rumors, I am not capable of everything.
There I was, procrastinating on repairing a shirt with a popped-off button. Don’t be blaming my swole pecs! Rather, I pulled on a string coming out from behind the shirt, and it happened to be the life force holding the button in place.
It was a slow, arduous process of 1) acquiring needles, 2) having the needles taunt me of their existence every morning for a week, and 3) finally attempting to sew the button back, shaking and stabbing at the button trying to thread the needle into the holes while distributing the thread evenly to each hole and… Did you know there are dozens of types of needles? It was a mess, but I got the hang of it, the only injury being to my pride perhaps.
Then I got curious how sewing machines worked and eventually came across a video of a woman using one to sew a button in like a second.
Wow! She had done what I just did, except better and in 1/1000 of the time.
I bet if I also spent years sewing buttons over and over, I could do it manually like a boss and know all the sewing machine tricks. Sewing a button on a shirt is one of the most basic embroidery moves. Is it conceivable that compared to my first try, I’d see significant improvements on subsequent attempts, even if improvements taper off? Like how going from level 59 to 60 is harder than going from level 1 to 10.
We can take away two things from my home-ec experience:
- If you need to do something that needs to be done, worrying only drains you in the present and doesn’t get it done. Instead feeling guilty every day, either accept that you’re not going to get it done in the foreseeable future, or just get it over with.
- You can improve even your worst talent to a minimally competent level more quickly than you can take it to a master level. The biggest return on effort comes from getting all your skills to a threshold competence before trying to reach maximum proficiency.
This is not to say that you should merely improve your worst skills. Don’t forget that you still need to reach the minimum threshold.
It appears, then, that our priority should be to surgically treat our weaknesses rather than to only fortify our strengths. The California bar is weighted similarly on all portions of the test (MBE is 35%, written including essays and PTs is 65%). Given the relatively low competence threshold (yes, I know firsthand that the bar exam is very difficult, but you don’t need 150 right on the MBE to pass), you want to be a generalist rather than a specialist.
I’ve emphasized deliberate practice before (which in the variant of identifying issues and rules in essays led to the essay cooking technique). Quick recapitulation on deliberate practice: Practice what specifically needs improvement + get immediate feedback on it. In our case, it’s mostly comparing our answers against sample essays or the answer key.
What’s your weakest link?
Deliberate practice doesn’t apply only to the essay cooking technique (although that probably takes care of a good chunk of your studying). Now we’re going a bit deeper: See if you can identify any areas you are particularly terrible at. We’re talking relatively terrible here; everyone is terrible in general. But if I can sew a button, you are capable of improving it. Take this two-part quiz right now:
- Pick your weakest area related to the bar—your worst one. Be honest with yourself here. Maybe you struggle to limit your outlining time for essays, understand a particular subject, identify the issues and sub-issues, apply rules, focus for X minutes, organize your PT outline, memorize rules, feel motivated, not hold in tears, etc. This may be subjective (e.g., not seeming to grasp all the issues for a subject) or objective (e.g., % correct).
- See if you are doing anything to improve that area. If you are, continue to do so until it’s no longer the weakest link. If you’re not taking steps to improve it, find out how to do it and focus on it. Ask me, ask other people, look around online, etc. Despite your confusion, everything is figure-out-able (you will have to figure things out all the time as an attorney). Ideally you reinforce this process with immediate feedback for rapid improvement.
Anne Robinson from Weakest Link was ice cold. Once the votes are cast and evaluated, one contestant is called out and banished to a walk of shame: “You are the weakest link, goodbye!”
See if you can do the same. Deliberate practice should feel at least slightly uncomfortable and disappointing because you want to see where you’re lacking. If you’re only practicing things you’re already good at, it might feel good, but you are gaining diminishing returns. Passing the bar feels the best of all, and I want you to pass.
Upkeep of your skilled areas is important, but you’re not getting the most bang for your limited time if that’s all you do. Ramp down on parts you’re already relatively better at.
On the other hand, if you attack and reiterate your weakest skill up to even an average level, you have boosted your overall competency by an amount disproportionate to the work you would have put in to improve everything the same amount.
It makes more sense to focus on the bottleneck rather than overwhelm yourself with trying to do everything all the time.
This is why I say ramp down on the “easy A” once you get it, i.e., once you understand the application process for a subject, you don’t need to continue practice writing full essays as much (at that point, I suggest full essays 25% of the time for upkeep).
One-hour writing sessions are a juicy trap that gets you stuck in a mirage of progress. A feeling of progress is important to keep motivated, but under the hood, it’s a quicksand of diminishing returns. You’re billing hours that won’t get billed, so to speak.
Sounds good, huh! But it’s not enough to nod your head and go on with your day. This post ain’t even halfway over. So that I don’t instantly equate you to this old guy who nods along but is kind of just zoning out, I’m going to give you some examples to inspire some focus in your practice.
Don’t miss Part 2 of Brian’s post!
Brian Hahn is a second-time passer of the California bar exam who thinks prospective candidates and repeaters should listen to him over people who happened to pass the first time. Visit Make This Your Last Time for more actionable and real discussion of bar prep and other free goodies.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- How Distinguishing Issues Will Help You Save the Future — Part 1
- How Distinguishing Issues Will Help You Save the Future — Part 2
- 5 Things I Did Differently the Second Time to Pass the Bar Exam
- You Failed the Bar Exam! 5 Tips to Get Ready to Study Again
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