The Bar Exam: The Big Bad Wolf

About the Authors:

Rachel E. Kelly is a second-year associate at Cabaniss, Johnston, Gardner, Dumas, & O’Neal LLP in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bridgette L. Williams is a solo practitioner at the Law Office of Bridgette L. Williams, PLLC in Beaumont, Texas.

Published: May 5, 2014

Fear. Anxiety. Restlessness. Doubt. Whether you are taking the bar exam for the first time, taking it again because you weren’t successful the first time, or taking it again but for another state, you will probably experience all of these emotions at some point during your bar preparation. This article is written by two practicing attorneys, who will review and give tips to help you perform your best on the bar exam, from three perspectives: a first-time taker, a repeat taker, or an out- of-state taker.

The First-Time Taker: So, I’m Supposed to Learn This by When?

By Rachel E. Kelly

You are just coming off that high of graduation. You are feeling extremely accomplished and, if you are like us, you may be the first in your family to attend law school. Your family beamed as your name was called and you walked—strutted— across that long stage to receive your juris doctor.  I don’t think I have ever felt so proud of myself as I did that Friday night; then came Monday and with it, the monster that is bar prep. Below are some tips for the first-time bar taker.

Take a break. Do something each day that allows you to decompress    for at least 30 minutes. This goes for whether you are studying for the first time or the second time. Your brain needs time to unwind. Being constantly consumed by the law will leave you drained. Find something that you enjoy and engage in it for just a few minutes a day and you will find that your outlook on the exam changes drastically.

 Get some sleep. Look, regardless of whether you study all day long or just a few hours a day, if you fail to rest, your brain isn’t going to absorb any of the information. Studies show that the average person needs between seven to eight hours of sleep per night to function properly. Even losing one hour of sleep can affect your ability to think properly, reason accurately, and respond quickly. While studying for the bar exam, sleep becomes your very best friend— and rightfully so. The bar exam is all about reasoning and one of the best ways to prepare for that challenge is to get proper rest.

 Make a schedule and stick to it. If you happen to study for the bar exam in the same city or town that you attended law school, you will most likely be studying around your friends and classmates. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. First, it’s good to have a support system comprised of people who are battling the same monster as you. On the other hand, everyone, literally everyone, including your aunt who has never taken the bar exam, let alone attended law school, will have an idea of the best method or way to attack the exam. Only you know what works best for you. No one can tell you how to study, not even a bar review course. If you work better in the morning, plan your schedule where the bulk of you studying is done bright and early. If you prefer to sleep-in and you're more of a night owl, study in the evening. Whichever you choose, just make sure that it’s right for you and your schedule. The first time I took the bar exam I was deathly afraid, so I studied on average about 14-16 hours a day. Although I passed, my relationships with family and friends and general well-being suffered. There must be a balance.

 Make flash cards. I made a flash-card game. Now, this deserves a little disclaimer—I never, ever made flash cards in law school. For me, they were too time-consuming. I would see my classmates walking around with boxes full of flash cards for each class and I would think to myself, "How do you find the time to write all of those and review them?” But, when it came to studying for the bar exam, making flash cards seemed like a good idea. And it was.  Now, I did not write paragraph-long explanations on these cards, rather I wrote short definitions or elements of law on them. I created a flash-card game where I would lay all of the cards face down and I would have to guess, at least it started out as guessing, what was on the other side. This became like trivia for me and something that I did right before leaving the library to unwind from a day of studying.

The Repeat Taker: Ugh, Not Again!

By Bridgette L. Williams

After getting over the initial shock of your name not being listed on the state bar’s pass list and picking yourself up off the floor from the tears that are weighing you down, it is time to refocus. It is time prepare your mind for bar study . . . again.

So many people have asked me, “What did you do differently to prepare for the bar the second time around”?

Spend time with a higher being. If you don’t believe in a higher power, this certainly may be the time to start. I began every morning and ended every night with prayer and meditation. This not only helped me to have a mind free from distractions for the day, but also gave me confidence in my abilities to be successful.

Don’t let nerves get the best of you. Stress and worry never lead to positive outcomes. It certainly does not on the bar exam. I am a firm believer that I allowed stress and anxiety to overcome me when studying for the bar the first time and it made me unsuccessful. Everyone uses different methods to clear their mind of the fact that this is the exam that will determine your entire future and livelihood. Some people may take a morning walk, take Sunday evenings off, go to church once a week, or do yoga on a scheduled basis. Your outlet may be something else, but do something to relieve your anxiety. Just don’t forget to keep it to minimum and on a scheduled basis.

Stick to a schedule. Many bar-prep courses offer a schedule for you. However, I added more to the schedule as time continued to progress toward the exam to ensure a firm grasp of the concepts and completed all of the practice questions that I chose to do.  Therefore I attempted to complete the bar study schedule, made a weekly schedule, and then a daily schedule. I even incorporated my lunch into the schedule. On Sundays, I packed lunch, dinner, and library friendly snacks for the week. Lunch included a turkey sandwich, blueberries (which are great for memory retention), maybe a granola bar, and either water or red bull, depending on if I was sleepy. Dinner may have also included much of the same things. I tried to bring only library friendly food, just in case I had to eat my lunch or dinner in the library.

Make bar study acquaintances. The term acquaintance is used intentionally. It is always good to have someone to speak with about a concept you may not fully comprehend. Through discussion of the concept, you teach each other. However, you don’t want the discussion to lead to unrelated bar talk.  Time is very valuable during bar study and you don’t want to waste it by discussing what happened to your bar study partner’s best friend’s boyfriend. Keep the discussions on the bar!

The Out-of-State Taker: I’ve Already Passed One State and I’m Doing It Again!

By Rachel E. Kelly

Make the most of your “down time.” Seriously, as a working professional, who has down time? The answer is, hardly anyone, but you have to create some. For the average working bar taker, you won’t have the ability to cut your hours by much to allow time to study. However, you definitely need to explore this option with your employer. The average employer will want you to be successful, so they will more than likely be flexible. Luckily for me, my employer was dedicated to seeing me be successful on the exam and I was allowed to leave two hours early on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to study. I would head straight from work to the library and would stay there until it closed, which was usually around midnight. I also studied on the weekends and during my lunch breaks. I realize that this sounds like a lot of preparation for someone who had already passed the bar in one state, but this time my success on the bar exam had a direct impact on my employment status and I was determined to pass.

Don’t allow anyone to plant doubts in your head. This includes yourself! When I took the bar a second time, I had just started my first job as an associate in one of the city’s most prominent firms. I was constantly asked how bar prep was going and if I felt that I would pass. In addition to that, a little birdie told me that if I failed, I would be the first in the firm’s history. Talk about pressure! Needless to say, I was terrified, perhaps more scared than when I took the bar the first time.

Become comfortable studying solo. My second time around I took the bar exam in a state that I had not attended law school and I didn’t know any bar takers in my city. Unlike the first time around, where I had plenty of people around whom I could ask questions, this time it was just me. I had to get comfortable with learning the material by myself. At first this was a bit of an adjustment, but I later came to enjoy the solace of studying on my own and figuring out the answers on my own.

Know when to ask for help. I made a really silly mistake the second time I took the bar; I did not purchase any bar-related materials. My logic was, “I’ve already taken the bar, I don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for a bar review course.” While that may have been true, I still needed materials to review. My first bar was in Texas and the second was in Alabama; and the laws in these two states varied greatly. I figured that I could use all the notes and flash cards that I had made when taking the bar the first time and I’d be fine. Wrong! I was in over my head and needed some serious help. Well, I scoured online auction sites for people selling bar-review materials, but I didn’t have any luck. I reached out to some friends, told them about my dilemma, and the word got out. Within three days, not only had I gotten a complete set of materials, but they were free. Use your network to your advantage.

 None of these tips are written in stone to ensure bar passage. However, these tips have assisted us on our bar-preparation journey and have proven to be successful. We hope that you are able to utilize these tips along with tips from your own research to do your very best and best your state’s bar exam. You can do it! 


Copyright © 2014, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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