Nationwide, bar examinations are getting tougher. There’s no doubt about it. And for many years now, the hardest to pass in the U.S. has been in California Bar Exam. That may be even more the case in 2015, with the addition of new subjects and the revision of several others.
So, should you think about taking a different exam? Not at all! The California Bar Exam can be successfully managed. Here are a few simple tips that will help you prepare for—and pass—the California Bar.
1. Start Early One of the biggest mistakes you can make is waiting too long to begin. This test is both state-specific and wildly general. As a result, you’ll need to master the arcane California distinctions in subjects like community property and procedure—and this takes time. Starting six weeks before the test and trying to cram (what I call “binge studying”) is a recipe for disaster. The better strategy? Start four to six months before the test and study 20 to 25 hours per week during that time. You’ll learn more and retain more information with spaced learning—and you’ll still have a life!
2. Learn to speak “Californian” Many California bar takers are successful attorneys from other states and countries who are surprised when they don’t pass the test here. Why do they fail? A major factor is that they try to use the approach and law they learned in their old state rather than writing for the California exam. This is a jurisdiction that prides itself on writing difficult essay and performance test questions and then grades very narrowly to punish the rule-memorizers and issue-spotters. The bottom line? Make good arguments and support them with the rule of law—and don’t try to elaborate on every marginal, irrelevant issue that you see. It just won’t work here.
3. Don’t Overlook the Performance Tests The structure of the California Bar Exam is pretty standard, but the scoring is anything but transparent. One (intended?) result is that applicants often misunderstand what they have to do to pass and consequently don’t spend enough time on the California Performance Test questions. These two tests (designed to replicate a pragmatic, real-world legal task like writing a legal memorandum or client letter) each last three hours (double the time of the Multistate Performance Test). The secret here? Practice. And write (in substance and in tone) in a way that shows an awareness of your audience.
4. Be Prepared for the New Subjects Any time a jurisdiction adds new subjects to its exam, there is uncertainty and anxiety. In February 2015, the Multistate Bar Exam added a seventh topic: federal jurisdiction and civil procedure. This follows the move in California to convert the subjects of professional responsibility, evidence and civil procedure to California-specific subjects. You’ll need to know both the multistate and California law in these subjects.
5. Use a Laptop There are many bar takers who still prefer to handwrite their answers. Perhaps they are afraid that something may malfunction with their computer during the exam, or are otherwise computer-phobic. However, we see a significant improvement in pass rate among those who use a laptop versus those who handwrite their answers. There are a couple of simple, pragmatic reasons why. First, we’ve found that exam takers who type their answers on a laptop are able to produce 500 more words on average over a 60-minute period than those who write their responses—a significant advantage considering the given time constraints. Second, by using a laptop, you’ll have far more flexibility to edit or restructure your answers, allowing you to organize and re-organize your thoughts more effectively.
6. The Night Before: Sleep, But Don’t Oversleep Bar exam hotels are notorious for being populated with extremely anxious people running up and down the halls late at night, knocking on doors asking for flashcards, that sort of thing. You’ll want to remove yourself from that as much as possible. A white noise machine is a great help. Also, have a trusted friend or family member call you in the morning as a back-up alarm. That way you won’t sleep through your alarm—or stay up all night worrying that you’ll sleep through your alarm.
7. Warm Up! Wake up 45 minutes earlier than you need to and use the time to do five to ten multiple choice questions. This gives you a chance to warm up your brain and get into test mode before you head to the test center.
8. Pack your Ear Buds Bring along a pair of iPod ear buds (you can forget about the iPod itself) and put them in once you get to the test center and are waiting to be admitted. Stick the cord in your pocket. This ruse allows you to avoid the unpleasantness of having to talk to—and feed off the neuroses of—other stressed-out test-takers. Use them again over breaks to shield yourself from the dreaded “post-mortem” conversations that invariably take place and that serve no purpose other than to create unnecessary anxiety.
9. Sequester Yourself As mentioned above, you’ll want to avoid post-mortem discussions like the plague. Have dinner by yourself, away from the hotel and other bar-takers. Even dining with friends and family can result in a deconstruction of the entire day which will serve only to add stress and anxiety. Go somewhere by yourself. Consider the bar exam to be three days of solitude, a (mentally taxing) retreat. It’s a time to be self-absorbed. Everything short of death and apocalyptic destruction can wait until Friday, so put everything aside and resist the urge to multi-task.
10. Avoid Sugar- and Carb-Heavy Meals Forego the stack of pancakes or plate of French toast for breakfast. Going heavy on sugars and carbohydrates can lead to energy spikes (and precipitous drops) or mental lethargy. Instead, have some Greek yogurt and a little granola and fruit (bananas are an excellent choice), or you can even order a serving of eggs and spinach. For lunch, have a hardy salad that includes some protein. You want to give yourself every edge you can, and eating for performance is an undervalued advantage.
The founder of Celebration Bar Exam Review, Jackson Mumey is an honors graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where became a senior teaching fellow. He passed the bar exam in 1992 using Celebration Bar Review’s predecessor course materials. He has appeared on brief in several U.S. Supreme Court Cases.
Jackson no longer practices law. Instead, he devotes his full attention and energy to teaching the bar exam and developing innovations in bar preparation course offerings. He has more than 25 years of bar coaching experience and has worked with several thousand bar takers for the Multistate Bar Exam and the exams of California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Texas, in addition to the Uniform Bar Exam and the Multistate Essay Exam.