How I Prepared for the Bar Exam

How I Prepared for the Bar Exam

People keep asking for advice on how to prepare for the bar exam, so I thought it might be useful to write about how I studied for the bar. Naturally, I can't necessarily recommend that you prepare in the same way, but I'll tell you what I was thinking, and how it seemed to work out.

#1: I Didn't Take BARBRI

Cue collective gasps, but I didn't take BARBRI. Crazy, right?

My decision might have been different if I'd initially taken a harder bar exam, but the first exam I took was in Massachusetts, which has something like a 90% pass rate. I took it partly for that reason. (I clerked in Massachusetts, so it wasn't entirely random, but it was mostly because I couldn't decide between New York and California and decided to make my life easier and take an "easy" bar exam.)

So, when I surveyed the situation and realized there was almost no way I'd fail, I couldn't justify paying BARBRI prices. As importantly, I had the opportunity to "pre-clerk" at a firm in Boston, where you work for six weeks as a summer associate before taking a few weeks off to study intensively. BARBRI had night classes that all of the other pre-clerks went to, but it seemed to me there had to be a more efficient way to study.

#2: I Found an Alternative Computerized Course

When I looked around, I found a course (Micromash, which seems to have morphed into Multistate Edge) which had a computerized system for teaching the MBE. The more I looked into it, the more I liked it. Basically, you got all the standard reference books, but the bulk of your time was spent answering MBE questions on the computer. If you got one right, you weren't likely to see it again. If you got it wrong, you'd see it, and others like it, over and over, until you consistently got them right.

This didn't seem like much fun (in that you'd always be getting "hard" questions), but it seemed a lot more efficient than sitting in lectures that covered material I already knew.

At the time, Micromash also had state law essay preparation books, so I got the full course and opted to learn Massachusetts state law that way. (Now they don't do the state law portion at all.)

#3: My Strategy - Ace the MBE and Hope for the Best On the Essays

I'm not going to pretend that I had a comprehensive grasp of Massachusetts state law when I sat down for the bar exam. I didn't.

However, I studied each area enough to know the basics, and focused most of my time on the MBE.

My thought process went something like this: I'm a decent writer in general, and the pass rate in Massachusetts is 90% (this was my mantra, in case you haven't noticed). If I do well on the MBE, there's basically no possibility that I'll fail. I need to know enough to understand what the essay questions are about, but, if I have to make up the actual law, it's not the end of the world. The pass rate is 90%.

#4: The Exam

I'm not going to lie to you - the bar exam is a difficult test, even in a state with a high pass rate. The MBE is probably the most difficult test I've ever taken, and I'm glad I took that part seriously.

Day one was the MBE, which was difficult but pretty much what I was expecting. Having done (seemingly) a million practice problems, I knew the tricks and could even sense when I was about to get a question wrong. For 4th Amendment questions, for example, I had my "intuitive" answer that I wanted to put down, and then the correct answer that I'd seen repeatedly, every single time I missed the same question. By exam time, I'd learned enough to write down the correct answer, rather than the answer I thought was correct, so I think I probably did pretty well on this part. (Unfortunately, there's no easy way to get your MBE score there if you pass.)

Day two was the Massachusetts essays, which, frankly, weren't that difficult. Having also now taken the California bar, I understand why the Massachusetts pass rate is so high. If the bar exam is a test of minimal competence, these were true to form. I have no doubt some of my answers sucked, but there was very little that I was entirely clueless about, even with only a few weeks of preparation. There were lots of details I had to improvise on, but I wrote a nice-looking, logical response that probably hit the high points. In any case, I didn't fail!

#5: The Analysis

In the end, I think my Massachusetts strategy worked pretty well. I definitely devoted less time to preparing than the average person taking it, but I focused my time on what seemed hardest and most important, the MBE. Lots of my friends who did BARBRI found that they didn't have time to practice as many MBE questions as they'd been assigned, because so much study time was taken up with lectures and other activities.

It's a real problem, because what you need to be drilling on is the material you don't already know. Sitting in a lecture or reviewing an outline can be comforting, but I question whether it's necessarily the best use of valuable study time.

At least for me, I wanted to pinpoint the areas I was weak in, and improve my performance as quickly as possible so that I could move on to other things. Having the computerized feedback allowed me to do that, in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I'd just been taking general MBE practice problems on paper, or sitting through a lecture on Evidence.

#6: The Next Time Around, in California

After I finished clerking, I moved to California and started working for a firm. I had to take the February bar, and got three weeks off to prepare. If you know what the California pass rates look like (they're ugly), you understand that this is NOT a lot of time. I was pretty freaked out, to be honest.

My mindset wasn't improved at all when I spent my first week off sick in bed, literally too sick to move, much less study. It was a nightmare. I was completely convinced I was going to fail. Once I semi-recovered, I decided to just give it my best shot and hope for the best.

Lacking other alternatives, I stuck with the computerized MBE preparation, which got me back up to speed pretty quickly. I got some California state law outlines and started learning the entirely new areas of law that I'd never seen before. Luckily I found Community Property interesting, so I didn't mind studying that and learned it pretty quickly. At this point, I couldn't tell you what other state-specific topics are on the California bar, but I can assure you I studied them for at least a few hours each.

I didn't prepare at all for the performance test, other than looking over a few sample answers. I thought my time was better spent trying to learn things I was entirely clueless about. There were a disturbingly high number of topics that seemed to fall into this category, even a few days before the exam!

#7: A Much More Stressful Bar Exam Experience

When I showed up for the California bar, I was not feeling good about it. In contrast to Massachusetts, which I was 100% sure I'd pass, I figured my odds of passing in California were about 75%. Not terrible, but not great, either.

In the end, I did pass, but it had to be on the strength of my MBE score, with some padding from the MPT and being a generally good writer under time pressure. I'm sure my essay answers were embarrassingly awful. I couldn't remember any distinctions between California and federal law on anything, and hadn't looked at any ethics material, which appeared at least twice (who knows what I missed!).

In short, I was woefully underprepared on the state law essays, but I knew enough to muddle through.

The Bottom Line

What did I do right, and what did I do wrong?

First, I would have taken California a lot more seriously, if it had been my first bar exam. I probably would have done BARBRI like everyone else, and worked really hard all summer.

Having not done that, I'm not convinced it's the best or only way to prepare. The one good choice I made in all of this was to opt for the computerized MBE prep, and to focus much of my attention on that. There's less to learn there, and it's something you can quickly get better at, with sufficient practice.

Stealing time from the state law prep, while nerve wracking, was probably a good choice in the end, even in California. However, it's a stressful approach, and one I can't necessarily recommend!

My advice, as far as it goes, is to think about your personality and how you learn, and tailor your study strategy to that. I'm extremely impatient and hate wasting time, so I would have gone nuts in a lecture class. The computerized approach was perfect for me.

Whatever you do, make sure you're actively practicing and engaging with the material you're learning. This, more than anything else, will be the difference between success and failure.

In the end, it's not what you know, it's what you do with what you know.

I'm living proof that you can not-know a lot of law, and still pass two bar exams!

Scary, but true.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process. 

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