Passing the bar exam requires an intimidating amount of memorization. There are no shortcuts and no two people learn in the same way. But techniques developed over thousands of years can help you memorize all that you’ll need for the bar. Here are a few methods that work for memory champions and that worked for me when I studied for (and passed!) the bar.
The memory palace is a powerful technique practiced since ancient Greece. This method takes advantage of the human brain’s strength in visual and spatial learning.
It works like this: Think of a house you know well; now take an imaginary walk through this house and associate information with items and locations in that house. It sounds silly, but it’s the method used by memory champions, ancient Greeks, and Sherlock Holmes.
I remember a good example of this method (and how to incorporate other mnemonic devices) from when I crushed the bar exam. I memorized contract law by placing rules in a journey around my parents’ kitchen, starting with condiments in the refrigerator as triggers to remember elements of offer and acceptance. The journey ended with the image of my father holding a frog-shaped container that leaked salad dressing. I’ll never forget the idea of my dad saying, “This statue of frog is covering my legs!” That image, plus an acronym, helped me remember that the statute of frauds covers MYLEGS.
Memory palaces don’t have to be rooms. Get creative! I memorized property law on a map of my grandparents’ farm, ending with my grandfather wrapping a birthday present. Wrap = RAP and RAP = rule against perpetuities! I mapped civil procedure on my undergraduate campus and torts inside my first car.
Peg and Link Methods
Two more mnemonic systems that take advantage of the mind’s ability to associate visual and other cues are the peg and link methods.
Peg systems are useful for memorizing lists or elements in legal tests. Think of this technique as creating an imaginary pegboard. First, think of a set of pegs you can’t forget, like the numbers 1 through 10. Next, assign triggers to each number, usually either sounds or words. For example, one = gun, two = shoe, three = tree. Finally, associate the information you are trying to remember with those triggers.
The peg system is very easy to use and master for the bar exam. Pegs are particularly useful for memorizing legal tests with multiple prongs, like personal jurisdiction analysis!
The link method works by linking one item with another, then linking the second item with a third, and so on. This method helps you to learn things in a series and, because each link is remembered in relation to the link before, it is useful for memorizing step-by-step analyses. For example, to remember the Lemon Test for determining the constitutionality of a law affecting religion, try this:
A dolphin. A dolphin giving a physics lecture. A dolphin giving a physics lecture trapped in a fishing net. The fishing net captures another dolphin. The second dolphin strips naked. The second dolphin winks at the first dolphin.
I know! I know that these visuals don’t make sense! But I used them to remember the Lemon Test:
- Purpose Prong
- Effect Prong
- Entanglement Prong
- Character and Purpose
- Nature of assistance
- Resulting relationship
I know what you’re thinking: “Porpoises!? A man with salad dressing on his pants!? Ridiculous!” But there’s a method to this madness. The more ridiculous or emotionally challenging the image, the easier it is to remember.
For most people, it’s easier to remember things that are extraordinary or emotionally challenging. It’s called the Von Restorf Effect. Whether using a memory palace, a peg system, or a memory link, consider using odd, emotionally challenging triggers.
For example, think of a man spilling salad dressing all over his lap, or a kite flying a dog, or Richard Pryor holding Sigmund Freud’s severed head. You never have to share these images so don’t be shy.
“Chunking” refers to breaking information down and “chunking” it together in easy-to-remember units. I’d bet you have experience with this process already. To remember a phone number, for example, you likely wouldn’t remember “8-6-7-5-5-5-5-3-0-9”. Instead, you’d probably remember 867 and 555 and 5309 because it’s easier to remember three numbers than ten numbers.
Chunks don’t have to be numbers; chunks can be words, ideas, or other units. Consider preparing for a contracts essay exam.
To tackle a contracts essay, you could think of the analysis like this: “Was there an offer that a reasonable person would have understood to be an offer that was not revoked or that a reasonable person would not have thought had been revoked and that didn’t lapse or that a reasonable person didn’t think had lapsed…[etc.]…and, if so, was there acceptance that a reasonable person would have considered to be acceptance….?”
But it’s difficult and confusing to remember hundreds of if/then legal questions in series. Instead, we cluster rules together into smaller chunks.
- First we analyze if there was an offer by applying the chunk of rules that govern offer analysis.
- Next we work through the chunk of rules that govern acceptance.
- Then we determine the contract terms by using the appropriate chunk of rules.
- Then we analyze performance and breach, etc.
Chunking is necessary to memorize outlines or attack plans, and you can incorporate this method into other memorization techniques, as well.
Practice, Practice, Practice
In the end, no matter which mnemonic devices you use, the key will be repetition, repetition, and repetition. And spaced repetition.
The bar exam isn’t easy and there is no way around memorizing a huge amount of stuff. But a lot of people have done it before you and you can do it, too, if you put in the work. Good luck and get to work!