A little more than 8 years ago, I vividly remember announcing, “I am never taking another standardized test again!” It was November 2010, and I had just found out I passed the Maryland bar exam. I was 29 years old and I FINALLY felt like a grown-up because grown-ups don’t have to take standardized tests!
That feeling lasted many years, until my husband and I made the very grown-up decision to move across the country to California. The legal powers-that-be in California did not care that I had passed the Maryland bar exam, was also admitted to the DC bar, had been a practicing attorney for 8 years, and had argued before judges in various state and federal courts. California wanted me to prove that I could perform at the distinguished professional level of “minimum competence.”
You would think that after my success on the Maryland bar exam and my years of professional experience I would feel confident and stress-free over demonstrating “minimum competence” to the State Bar of California. Well, you would be wrong . . .very, very wrong.
First, I got angry and indignant, spending several weeks crafting my legal argument about why it’s ABSURD that a licensed attorney in good standing needed to sit for another bar exam. I mostly yelled these arguments at my (luckily very patient) husband during dinner.
Then, I researched what was going to be on the exam . . . and I panicked. I hadn’t dealt with the vast majority of the subjects since the last time I took the bar exam (or, in the case of criminal law, since I binged “The Staircase” on Netflix). I spent the last 8 years of my professional life as an attorney immersed in the intricacies of insurance law. Guess what area of law is not tested on the bar exam?
Finally, like any type-A lawyer facing a seemingly insurmountable task, I started making a detailed plan. The first thing I had to figure out was how I was going to study. I knew I wanted to self-study, but what resources did I need? Unlike when I took the Maryland bar exam, I am married with 2 young kids. This meant that I did not have the time (or interest, frankly) to spend 10-12 hours/day plowing through online lectures and making detailed outlines. My study hours were limited to the daytime hours when my kids were at day care. I had already been doing some work for Bar Exam Toolbox, so I was somewhat familiar with their resources. After some further review, I honed in on the 3 key resources I needed:
1. Bar Exam Toolbox Self-Study Schedule
I adapted one of the daily, 8-week self-study schedules to meet my specific needs. I took the Attorneys Exam, which (thankfully) meant I only had to sit for the written portion and did not have to take the MBE again. After removing all of the MBE-related work from the schedule, I was left with a weekday schedule requiring about 3 hours of studying/outlining per day plus an additional 3 hours per day of doing and reviewing practice essays. On the weekends, the schedule required writing and reviewing 1 Performance Test (approximately 2.5 hours of work).
2. BarEssays.Com Outlines
To learn the substantive law, I primarily relied on BarEssays.com’s outlines. For each subject, I printed hard copies of the outline. Each day, I would read through one of the outlines to re-familiarize myself with the area of law. Then I would start writing down the key rules and elements for each topic on the outline. I initially started writing detailed law school style outlines, but I found I was largely just retyping the information on the BarEssays.com outline and also getting bogged down in the details. To fix this, I forced myself to handwrite attack plans, rather than writing traditional outlines. I used charts for my attack plans. I wrote a chart for every major issue in a particular subject (e.g., in Civ Pro, I had a chart for personal jurisdiction, another one for SMJ, another one for venue, etc). The charts showed the rules/elements and sub-rules/sub-elements that I would potentially need to analyze for a particular issue. I forced myself not to use too many words when drawing up my charts, so I only wrote down the key terms I needed to memorize. I would review the charts and redraw them a few times every few days to commit them to memory. If I needed a refresher or more details on a particular issue, I would go back and consult the BarEssays.com outline.
3. Brainy Bar Bank and Writing of the Week
This was perhaps the single most important resource I used. The Brainy Bar Bank is Bar Exam Toolbox’s database of bar exam essay questions and sample answers, organized by exam administration, by topic, by sub-topic, and by topic and sub-topic frequency. The Brainy Bar Bank allowed me to easily isolate key essay topics and sub-topics I wanted to practice to ensure I was hitting most topics at least once and the more frequently tested subjects several times.
Following the self-study schedule, I did two practice essays per day for the first six weeks of studying, and did as many as I could fit into a day for the last two weeks of studying. I made sure that one of the essays I did each week was a Writing of the Week essay. Additionally, I did one full MPT each week. For the first four weeks, I did not write out full answers to essays. Rather, I would read the question, issue spot, and draft a detailed outline of the answer. For any issue I spotted, I would draw out the chart I had memorized for that topic and then note any facts that corresponded to a particular rule/element. Then I would review the sample answers to confirm I had identified all of the issues, included all of the legal rules/elements, and identified the key facts for each issue. For the last four weeks of studying, I started writing full answers under timed conditions to at least two essays per day. And in the last two weeks of studying, I did a few batches of 3 essays in 3 hour periods to mimic exam conditions. I also handwrote one full MPT answer and a few essay answers to be prepared for the possibility of a laptop malfunction on exam day.
The self-study schedule, Brainy Bar Bank, and BarEssays.com outlines were the most important tools I needed to study for—and pass!—the California bar exam. After receiving my results in November, I turned to my husband and said for the second time in my life: “I’m never taking another standardized test again!”