Congratulations on graduating from law school! Completing law school is a great achievement, which leads to the next challenge: passing the bar exam. Of course, some of the information you learned in law school, including black letter law, how to write a brief, and (if you were lucky) how to IRAC, will be useful for taking the bar exam. However, in order to be successful on bar exams, you need to shift from some of the old goals and techniques you used on law school exams to new goals and techniques that will lead to success on bar exams.
Change Your Goal For Grades
In law school, your goal was to get the highest grade possible on each law school exam you took. In contrast, when you take the bar exam, your goal is not to get the highest grade possible on an individual essay or performance exam or batch of multiple choice questions, but to get a passing grade. There are two reasons for this shift.
First, you are under greater pressure to allocate your time well on a bar exam. On a law school exam, a law professor will almost always recommend how much time you spend on each part of the law school exam, either by explicitly stating how much time you should spend on each question or stating what percentage of your grade each question is worth. In contrast, during a bar exam, you will be given a large block of time, often three to six hours, in which you must complete several completely unrelated questions. For example, the California bar exam gives bar candidates three and a half hours to do two essay exams and one performance exam. It is up to the bar candidate to decide how much time to spend on each question. If a bar candidate spends too much time on a single question, he or she may receive a 90 on that question, but then not have enough time to do a good job on the other two questions and receive a 50 on each of the other questions. If you do the math, you will see that this type of time allocation error almost always results in not passing the bar exam as a whole.
Second, law professors will only test you on black letter law that they have covered in their class, either through assigned reading or class discussion. Most law professors focus their exam questions on subjects that were discussed in class. Thus, if you paid attention in class and took good notes, you have a pretty solid idea of what legal issues will show up on your law school exam. In contrast, on the bar exam, you will encounter legal issues that require you to know a rule that may not have been covered by your law professor, or may not have been emphasized in your bar review course. You will encounter an issue that requires you to know a rule that you do not know on a bar essay exam; everyone does. You will realize to your horror that you do not have time to discuss every fact or every aspect of the legal authority given on a performance exam; this happens to everyone too.
Given these two differences between law school and bar exams, your best strategy is to do a good, but not outstanding job, on each part of the exam. Decide well in advance of the actual bar exam how much time you are going to spend on each type of question. Then stick to this time allocation during your practice exams and the real bar exam. You may not spot every issue on an essay exam. You may not be able to discuss all aspects of the facts and legal authorities that are given on performance exams. You may have to guess at a multiple choice question rather than spend more time thinking about the answer choices. Instead of aiming for a very high score, in the 90’s or above, aim for scores in the 70-80 range. If you consistently receive scores in the 70-80 range, you have an excellent chance of passing the bar exam. In contrast, if you spend too much time on one bar exam question and score a 90, but run out of time for two other questions, and receive 50’s, do the math and you will discover that you have an excellent chance of failing the bar exam.
Change How You Allocate Your Study Time
When in law school, law students tend to spend the most amount of their time preparing for class, and the least amount of their time taking practice exams, at least until the very end of the semester. When preparing for the bar, you need to spend most of your time taking practice exam questions and less of your time studying the black letter law.
There are two reasons for this reverse pattern. First, taking practice essay and MBE questions and reviewing the sample answers will show you exactly which legal rules you do not know. You can then use the time you spend studying the black letter law to focus on the legal rules that you do not know. Second, your score on any type of exam, including the bar exam, depends, a great deal, on how good you are at taking exams. The more time you spend taking practice exams, the better your exam taking skills get and the likelihood that you will pass the bar increases.