Imagine this: you sit down for the essay section of the bar exam, the timer starts, you open up the exam booklet, and you. cannot. remember. a thing. Your mind is absolutely blank.
Now, if this scenario just struck your heart like an ice pick, and you can’t shake the feeling that it is destined to happen to you, well, join the club. The one fear that all bar examinees have is forgetting the material. I cannot tell you how many nights I dreamt the exact scenario above and woke up in a cold sweat.
Unfortunately for me, this dream came to fruition every time I sat down for a practice essay and spent the first ten seconds after reading the questions in complete disbelief that the information was in my head at all. Most of the time, the knowledge would slowly resurface, and I would be able to answer the question. But, quite a few times, the information would not come, and I would stare at the screen, panicking.
On one occasion in particular, I was sitting down for my first Constitutional Law practice essay. I read the hypo, then the questions, then gaped. I read the hypo again, then the questions, and again stared down at the words as if they had magically transformed into Japanese characters. I had no idea what the question was asking, and no idea on where to start.
I balled up the scratch paper I was using, slammed my computer shut, and cried…in the middle of the library’s children’s section.
Over the course of two bar preps, and countless hours of being tutored, I learned there were three steps I could take to cope if I forgot a rule on the bar exam.
1. Stay Calm
Most of the time, the inability to recall the rule is simply because we are anxious. The bar exam is hard, the test prep is exhausting and stressful, and trying to recall the law while simultaneously panicking you’ll forget it is a recipe for disaster. Studies show that anxiety can cause memory loss because the brain’s electrical activity is working overtime – the brain is generating more thoughts at rapid succession which is distracting and can make focusing nearly impossible.
If you come to a question that you do not think you know the answer to, stay calm. Take a few deep breaths.
The best thing my mother told me during my bar preps was that if I had studied and read the law then all the information was in my brain, I just needed to stay calm enough to access it. And it’s true. It’s in there somewhere.
Once you are calm, reread the question. If you still do not know the rule or how to use it, move on to step #2.
2. Figure out the Rules you do Know for this Particular Topic
Writing attack plans for each topic was a foreign concept to me when I attempted the bar the first time, but they became integral to my practice essays the second time. I found what worked for me to create an attack plan – I’d start with the long outlines from the commercial prep company and create quick definitions for each topic using keywords I thought the bar examiners would be looking for. I could memorize those smaller bits of information and recall them easily whenever I saw the concept crop up in an essay.
For instance: Subject Matter Jurisdiction (SMJ) = Federal Question Jurisdiction; Diversity of Citizenship; Personal Jurisdiction (which for me just looked like “SMJ = FQJ, DJ, PJ”) and then I’d have “DJ = more than $75k + complete diversity,” and so on.
Now, this is just how I organized the law in my brain, and it may not work for you. But attack plans, however you construct them, are important because they work in two ways: (1) they help you memorize big ticket items in a way that’s easy to organize on the essay, and (2) you become very familiar with what the question is not asking.
If you blank on which rule is relevant for the question, knowing which rules aren’t is actually helpful. By knowing what isn’t relevant, you can skim through your memories of these attack plans and probably figure out which rule is. And if that doesn’t work, jump to step #3.
3. Make a Rule Up
I know, it scared me to hear that tip too, but I swear it works.
When you can’t remember a rule, make it up, and then analyze the issue using the rule you made up. This is the most important part of step #3. You will not get the same amount of points as you would have for knowing the actual rule, but you will get some points. And you will get a lot more points if you can show the graders that you know how to analyze.
Identify all the issues the question is asking about, make up the rule for the ones you cannot remember, and then analyze the issue using that rule. As long as you organize your answer to that particular issue using IRAC and can show the graders you know how to analyze, it won’t matter much that you used a made-up rule. And, chances are the rule you “made-up” will probably sound very similar to the actual rule – because, like I said in #1, everything you have learned is in your brain, somewhere.
Examinees tend to get bogged down trying to memorize everything the bar exam might ask. This isn’t feasible – even if you had all the time in the world. Learn to control your anxiety, take breaks during studying, move around every few hours, breathe, and don’t fret if you forget a rule. Practice the steps above throughout your bar prep and when you sit down for the exam you will have a game plan if your mind blanks.