Today we welcome an attorney who shares his story about failing the California bar exam and why he decided to hire a bar exam tutor for his second studying attempt. He offers some great advice about the benefits of working with a tutor and how it can help you pass the exam.
When I found out I had failed the bar exam, I was really, truly shocked. I had tried my very hardest and I studied more diligently than many other people I knew. I barely took breaks. I had also done well in law school and was accustomed to grasping the law fairly easily. I had been lead to believe, whether from bad advice or my own misunderstanding I’m not sure, that so long as you have a good general understanding of all of the legal principles and “know” the law, that you can essentially come up with a passable essay. I had opted to sign up for a big bar review course just like most of my classmates and I completed every assignment. I didn’t fall behind, I wrote quite a few practice essays and performance tests, and I was actually pretty good at MBEs.
I didn’t get too nervous during the test itself and after it was over, I honestly thought I had done well. For this reason, when I checked my results that fateful Friday evening in November, I absolutely thought (hoped) there had been some kind of terrible mistake. I went to bed and didn’t get up for almost three days. I had never fallen so hard so fast, or been so disappointed in myself.
By Sunday afternoon, I was sure everyone who had been on the law review with me had looked up my name, realized I hadn’t passed, and now considered me the ultimate failure, an imposter.
In a moment of idle despair, I actually made a list of all of my friends with worse grades than me who had passed. Even my buddy who was so woefully unprepared that he hadn’t installed the exam software and had to handwrite the whole thing, had managed to pass on his first try. And, I was positive I was “smarter” than him, which was completely unfair and made me even more depressed.
My initial impulse, being the type-A person I am, was to start studying immediately. I retrieved the dusty stack of books I had all but demolished in my over-confidence, and began reading the black letter law. I think I just needed something to occupy my mind.
It was almost Thanksgiving, I was facing the pity of my family and friends, which for me, was almost worse than the frustration I felt toward myself. When I got my score sheet back, I convinced myself I hadn’t been that far off.
Instead, I started thinking of every conceivable instance of misfortune that had occurred in my personal life while I was studying that I could blame as the culprit for my downfall. My uncle had died, maybe I was so sad that was the reason I had failed? I had been taking care of someone who had been injured and needed help with every meal and bath and doctor’s appointment, perhaps that had detracted from my studying to an extent that would prompt failure? Deep down inside, though, I knew that I had felt great going into the exam, and I had felt just fine coming out of it. Something must have gotten lost in translation, but I didn’t know what. That’s when I decided I needed help.
The Decision to Get Help
I talked to a friend and classmate who had not yet taken the bar, and she recommended that I get in touch with Lee Burgess, a tutor who had helped her get through her 1L classes. She said Lee was one of the most brilliant people she had ever met and that she never could have passed her classes without her. I still remember my first call with Lee. She was sympathetic, but not overly-indulgent when it came to my self-deprecation and disbelief about failing. I was all too content to dwell on my misery, and she was much more interested in acknowledging my feelings but then helping me move on. Lee had a concrete plan for me, which is just what I needed to stop spinning my wheels. She began assigning me essays, and I realized very quickly how very wrong I had been in my previous study process.
In hiring a big bar prep. company, I had gotten lost in the crowd. I followed along and went to every lecture, I watched every video, but no one ever told me my essays needed serious help.
For the most part, my practice essays had gotten passing scores. The ones I failed, everyone else I knew failed as well, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Somehow, though, I had managed to completely miss the point.
According to Lee, the bar examiners and graders were looking for something very specific, and she was fantastic at explaining exactly what that was and helping me practice conforming my essays and PTs to that pre-determined rubric. There were things she told me about how to improve my writing that had frankly never occurred to me. She was happy to go through my essay booklets and told me in no uncertain terms that I also needed to go through them myself as well, which until that point, I had been avoiding at all costs.
Once I read my essays, I realized how awful they were. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t understand the law, in fact, maybe I knew too much law, but there were holes in my knowledge. I had given short shrift to topics that were actually really important. I hadn’t prioritized my learning, I didn’t have attack plans. I knew a ton of law in excruciating detail, but I had never seen the broader scheme. I applied the law in a way that did not comport with the structure and organization the graders wanted.
I had spent time dwelling on issues that weren’t actionable, and other nuances, I had missed altogether. Little by little, I began to see how writing in the way Lee instructed me to, would be much simpler to grade, much more straightforward and concise, and probably get me a lot closer to passing.
Realizing the Problem
Very soon into the tutoring process, I observed that what I had prescribed for myself during the last exam had clearly been ineffective. I decided to throw myself into my second try head first, giving Lee full control of the reins. I listened to everything she told me. I practiced even more than she recommended, which was already a lot! I reviewed my own answers against the models she gave me and tried to figure out on my own each issue I had missed. I made all of my own outlines completely from scratch, and then I condensed them further. I constructed charts and handwrote attack plans. And then I practiced some more.
In terms of my personal life, my second try at the bar, was a total disaster. In my confidence about passing the first time, I had given up my rent-controlled apartment and found myself homeless without enough money to get a new place to live. First, I slept at my sister’s house until her kids got to be too much to handle. Then I moved to my other sister’s house and stayed in a camping RV parked in her back yard. This only lasted one night as it turned out the entire thing was chock full of spiders and it was impossible to sleep or study in there!
Next, I moved in with my brother, who was doing a work-stay on a farm and slept out in the converted barn, which, coincidentally, was infested with mice, as barns are wont to be. After the spiders, though, that was sort of an improvement! At least the mice stayed in the walls and ceilings during the day, and I made sure to move my sleeping mat away from the bags of corn piled in the corner. When the people who owned the farm suddenly decided to sell it, I had less than three days to figure where to pile my books and continue studying.
Finally, I moved three hours away to stay with my cousin and decided I would just take the Greyhound bus back for the exam itself, which also turned out to be a huge catastrophe for reasons I won’t get into here.
Keeping Sane During an Insane Time
During this complete upheaval, Lee was the only source of continuity in my life. On her sage advice, I made sure I ate healthily. I even started running every day. I followed all of her recommendations, and even though I was studying fewer hours, taking more breaks, and dealing with a lot more uncertainty about my life and living situation, I felt fantastic about the progress I had made, and I knew I had effected some monumental changes in the way I had been approaching this monster of a test.
My essays were leaps and bounds ahead of where they had been, I was spotting every issue, staying within the allotted time constraints, and I had every nuance of law from my outlines completely memorized verbatim in order of priority. I could start at the top and recite every single outline from memory, which I actually did to practice in the days leading up to the test itself.
My confidence going into the exam the second time was less about thinking I was a smart and capable person, and more about knowing I had done all of the work required, and more so, that it was the right kind of work; I had been focusing on what I should have been all along.
When it came time to check bar results the second time, I was too anxious to even log in myself. I e-mailed someone else my login info and told them to just call me if I passed.
Despite all my work and preparation, I still felt completely defeated by this exam, and I didn’t know if I could handle another disappointment. Finding out I had passed was one of the happiest days of my life. I had finally redeemed myself. I could finally move on.
I owe my bar exam success in large part to Lee and the program she developed. Signing up for her course was the smartest investment I have ever made. As you can see, I prioritized it even above getting a stable roof over my head! I never regretted that decision for a minute. If I had it to do over, I would live with mice and spiders again if it meant getting the good advice and feedback Lee gave me.
I had been truly lost on my own, and even though I am incredibly meticulous and attentive by nature, in focusing on the wrong things, I had really managed to lead myself astray. I have learned that passing the bar has almost nothing to do with how conventionally intelligent you are on paper. It’s a brutal exam and a overwhelming hazing experience, and there are numerous factors at play for why we pass or fail. There are myriad ways we can manage to be our own worst enemies when it comes to this particular exam. The methods Lee taught me, and her knowledgeable, detailed corrections on my writing made all the difference to my work product. It still took a lot of time and preparation on my part, but having someone like Lee in my corner who knew this test in and out and could teach me what to expect, and how to write a great answer was absolutely the reason I passed the second time around!
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- The Question i’ve Never Been Asked About the Bar Exam
- 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
- Coming Back After a Bar Exam Failure — Gearing Up to Study Again
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