With every new, doomsaying headline about the California Bar Exam, it’s only natural to think—as I did—“Can anyone pass?” The answer is yes. I graduated in May 2018 and passed the July 2018 exam, and learned the following lessons along the way.
Remember what works for you. I used a big-box bar review program. I spent about a month relying on the program’s exhortations to “trust the process”—listen to the lectures, do practice essays, work through exercises, all on the program’s timetable.
I knew I needed time to process the blackletter law, but kept following the program’s schedule until I, frankly, cracked in the middle of bombing a practice essay.
I knew my problem. I needed to learn the actual law.
In a heretical move, I ditched the timetable and started drilling on the outlines for each subject I had been making all along. I practiced MBE questions, 25 to 50 a day, from various sources. I made flashcards for the challenging tests: elements of torts, what triggered strict scrutiny, Van Camp and Pereira. Retreading the material for the final three weeks finally helped me understand it.
The exact same technique won’t work for everyone, of course. But the point is that you’ve already gotten at least two college degrees—you know your own strengths and weaknesses with regard to studying. Don’t blindly adhere to your bar review program if you don’t feel it “clicking” after awhile.
Keep the exam in perspective. The bar exam is not a test that requires any skills different from those you learn in law school. Anxiety-inducing as it is, it’s a closed-book essay and multiple-choice exam, the kind you’ve taken several times. Take it seriously, of course. But studying morning to night, seven days a week will burn you out early and irretrievably. Go to a movie with your significant other; celebrate family birthdays.
Moreover, as my fiancée correctly said, “You could study contracts every day for a year and still not know everything there is to know about it.” Expect to be ambushed by a question about holders in due course or mechanic’s liens—a question you won’t know the answer to entirely. You will succeed if you understand the foundation of how the law works, not the filigree.
In short, avoid both burnout and getting lost in the weeds.
Have a plan. Know what you’re going to study each day, balancing how you know you study with covering what you need to study. Post-exam, also know what your plan is—either way. I knew what I would do if I didn’t pass: contact my review program for another round, contact the school for extra guidance, and work out a plan to reduce hours with my employer as I studied again.
Luckily, I didn’t need to do it. But I saved myself considerable anxiety, with a plan from the day after graduation to the day results.
-Mitchell Vanlandingham, Class of 2018