Is knowing in theory enough to later apply it to practice?
Here’s a pop quiz.
Studying for my first attempt at the California Bar Exam, what did I spend my time doing the most?
A. Practicing essays
B. Practicing MBE
C. Practicing PTs
E. None of the above (NOTA)
Incidentally, NOTA is never a sure bet on the MBE (what a PITA). Neither is it unreasonable nor unheard of to get 7 of the same letter in a row. Nothing is out of bounds. But you will like it, and you will take it with a smile on your face to please your obarlords.
The answer to the pop quiz is actually NOTA.
Instead, I spent 6 hours a day watching lectures on 1.5x speed, pausing and rewinding because I couldn’t take notes fast enough in the giant fill-in-the-blank lines (cough, Kaplan) and was trying to figure out where the (self-labeled) “professor” was within the lecture notes.
Then my brain would be too tired to actually do useful work like practice.
“Wait, you didn’t panic?” I didn’t panic because I was just going through the motions, and I thought listening to the lecture would be sufficient. Nothing to worry about, right? I fell prey to a normalcy bias or something. So if you are panicking, that is a good sign that you are primed and alert and ready for action.
I tend to think that merely knowing something in theory is enough to later apply it to actual practice. But that is a risky mindset and not necessarily the best choice for approaching the bar or anything else you want to take seriously. It may or it may not work. In the case of July 2013, my score of 1338 told me it didn’t work.
You might think that the scope of the bar is huge. Yes, and yet at the same time, there is a limited body of ways you can be tested. Practice for the bar becomes more critical when you realize that the permutation of attack patterns from the bar is limited, particularly on essays.
Essays will test more on your breadth of knowledge: “What do you know about this subject?” Checking for issues becomes highly valuable.
Through practice, you’ll see that essays tend to test certain issues and sub-issues more frequently than others. The added benefit of seeing a lot of essays is that you’ll know how to handle these big-ticket items.
The MBE instead tends to dive into specific nuances: “How well do you know this particular concept?”
The MBE question will give you a usually short fact pattern (there it is again—limited patterns) designed around a specific issue and give you four convincing choices just to see whether you understand when risk of loss in a non-carrier shipment passes to the buyer only upon buyer’s possession (when the seller is a merchant fyi).
Through practicing MBE questions, you’ll see how certain facts trigger certain elements of a rule. Remember that the questions were designed around an issue, not the other way around. If you understand the issue AND its rules, then despite the smokes and mirrors cast by the question, the answer becomes obvious—the wrong choices becoming mere phantoms with no substance. This is also improved by practice.
Even the MBE doesn’t require exceptional performance btw. Get to 60-65% and you’re probably on the right track assuming your other areas are also fine.
If you are already good at transforming abstract ideas to real situations (or think you are), perhaps you don’t think you need as much practice. But is there any reason not to practice? Unless you’ve found a better use for your time, practice is one activity that cannot hurt.*
* To an extent. Though outside the scope of this post, there is such a thing as too much practice. I will not go into this for purposes of clarity, however, because in the context of bar studying, unless you are sacrificing your health, you generally have nothing to lose and everything to gain by practicing more.
Plan an intentional approach
The very tempting tendency when doing something that makes you panic, like bar prep, is to go on autopilot. People get scared and don’t want to stray from the given path, so they…
- Pay $4,000 to sign up for Barbri because it’s the “safer” choice (like two people who told me in 2013 why they went with Barbri on purpose despite liking Kaplan features more—and one failed). At least in 2013, people were shown the wrong DVD, made to use an unstable website, listened to fear mongering, and regretted not listening to the Kaplan guys who in turn regretted not going with Barbri (no one is 100% happy with their choice).
- Go to lecture and furiously try to fill in all the blanks while the outlines containing all the information collect dust.
- Follow the schedule given by your prep course. Study torts today, or die! Watch lectures all morning! Lunch for 60 minutes! Do 20 MBEs! Do 3 essays! When am I supposed to organize all my lecture notes? Wait, this schedule doesn’t include bathroom breaks; do I set up a desk in my bathroom or convert my chair to a toilet?!
Sure, that probably works for the preponderance of people. It’s the one-size-fits-all approach for the average person. Do you want to be a candidate of average caliber?
No, you want to be several notches above so that when contingencies knock you down on bar day, you will already have propped yourself up in your weak areas and have the foundation and experience in the right areas to back you up.
And contingencies will happen. Some non-hypothetical examples that happened to me on my second try: SofTest bugged out so that spaces couldn’t be inserted, saw my worst essay subject that I deprioritized and hadn’t reviewed for two weeks, had to shotgun a remedies essay for the entire hour because it looked like literally all the issues testable on Remedies were being tested.
So you want to take the intentional path. Now take a look at what it might look like if you think through what is right for you despite feeling the FOMO on the “safer” path:
- You carefully weigh the options given to you by various prep companies based on how they could benefit you. You might like Kaplan’s Qbank because you want to track your MBE progress carefully. You might like BarMax because you’re always on the go for work. You might like Barbri because you like its polished quality. Or you just practice on your own and reference used material.
- You look at the schedule template and tweak it because while you’re great at criminal law, you really need to patch up contracts. So you take 4 days for contracts and just 1 day for criminal law because crim is a lot more intuitive for you.
- You save lectures for nighttime review because you’ve spent your energy on practicing in the morning and afternoon. Coincidentally, you find yourself falling asleep easier.
- You do 50 MBE questions and take your time thoroughly reviewing all the answer explanations for all the questions. The MBE seems to get harder every year! Or you want to work on contracts essays, so you 5 full essays in 2 hours using condensed outlines or the essay cooking technique. For each one, you learn issues and rules you didn’t know about and add them to your repertoire.
These are just examples, but when you cater to your own needs, you won’t waste time spinning your wheels or wiping a window that’s already sparkling clean.
When developing an intentional approach, you can isolate and focus on one (or few) weakest link at a time, as we discussed in Part 1.
This is a system that builds on itself, much like a feedback loop. Once you get good at something, don’t forget to shift your focus to other weak areas.
How did I resolve my weak areas?
Some of my examples from each part of the bar:
MBE: I wanted to know how I was at each subject. I took a diagnostic midterm (that I scheduled myself, of course) and analyzed them according to subject.
I ordered the subjects by aptitude. I studied harder on the subjects I was lacking in (i.e., the weakest link). These rankings fluctuated over time, and I adjusted my study emphasis accordingly. It was definitely not in round-robin fashion just rotating through the subjects.
Essays: I was rather bad at identifying issues, AKA “issue spotting.” This was my weakest link with respect to the essays. As I focused on a way to get all the issues, I came up with “issue checking,” not something people think to do when influenced by the assumption that they know how to do it after three years of law school. I don’t call it “spotting” issues because that implies you look at the facts first and come up with issues like in Where’s Waldo.
I didn’t know how to do this in law school either. It’s such a vague process—especially when you are in panic mode for the bar—until you realize the universe of the hypo has a preexisting, finite set of issues. The bar hypos are designed around the issues rather than vice versa, and one should approach them in the same manner.
Once I started using the issue checking method, identifying the issues became more of a chore than anxious guesswork.
Performance tests: I thought I was decent at this until I was rocked by the 2013 July PTs. Damn it, why did it have to be my year that got hit with the hardest PTs ever?! But now you get to reap the benefits from my suffering.
Here, my entire approach was weak. If I had known the steps to approach each PT, I should have still done well in July.
So I dissected and studied what PTs were about and practiced more of it. Doing full ones is important for PTs since it tests your endurance, time management and fact application. You can find out more in my PT guide (v. 1.5).
You can see that the ways I came up with to study were designed around addressing my incompetencies. Coming up with an intentional approach might sound boring and troublesome, but it can turn out to be effective.
I don’t know anything about cars, but it’s like using stick shift, I guess? Manual flight over autopilot? Android over iPhone? Ha ha! No wait, come back!
Even if you’re still in “gotta learn all the subjects first” mode, you can set aside time every day to go back to a weak point. Need to review or learn a subject you want to avoid? Need to squeeze in more MBE questions? Need to figure out a way to do PTs in the allotted time? Set aside X minutes or hours dedicated to your weakest link. Compounding might be the only force greater than love.
Don’t be a schemer, though. Take it one weakness at a time. You can be methodical, but if you go overboard with your enthusiasm about it, you might get stuck with analysis paralysis, another form of procrastination.
If my examples inspire you to use them with success or come up with your own methods, please let me know!
So how do you improve your overall competence?
- Do less of what you already know.
- Find your weakest link one at a time and figure out how to improve it.
- Develop an intentional approach to studying around your weakest links.
Now I want to ask you: What do you struggle with most. What is currently your biggest burning pain on the bar, and how do you plan to resolve it?
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.
Want more useful bar exam advice? Sign up for our free mailing list now!
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
Photo credit: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock