How to Pass the California Bar Examination

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The fundamentals of bar exam success are easier to recite than they are to put into practice. They are: law knowledge, test-taking skills, physical stamina and emotional balance. 

Learning the Black Letter Law

Almost every recent law school graduate takes a “full service” bar review course, and, regrettably, Bar / Bri dominates the industry. Even so, many of the corporate bar review substantive lectures are superb. It’s amazing how much information can be communicated in just a few hours. Many students come away from the bar review lectures wishing they had seen them before starting law school. When you think about it, the fact that a corporate bar review can teach the law better than even the ‘best’ law schools is a harsh critique of the pathetic state of American legal education today.

Most of us are overwhelmed by the amount of material we are responsible for. It’s impossible to know every detail. Preparing for the bar exam is a more practical and more compact exercise than law school. It can be intellectually satisfying. The good news is that it is possible to become sufficiently knowledgeable and skillful to pass the California Bar Examination with the right kind of effort.

It is appropriate, but not essential, to review the black letter law on each subject before attending the bar review lecture. Most students rely on the Mini Review outline and their lecture notes as “primary authority” and use the bigger outlines for reference.

The Most Common Mistake and the MBE

Every bar exam expert agrees that practice is central to passing any bar examination. Many unsuccessful candidates fail the bar exam because they feel they don’t know the law well enough to begin practice. The best way to learn the black letter law is to do a couple thousand MBE questions and to outline and write a few dozen essays and performance tests.

The Multistate Bar Examination is a 200 question multiple-choice test. The subjects tested are torts, contracts, real property, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law and evidence. The MBE tests knowledge of legal fine points and writing skills.  The most practical and effective way to learn these fine points is to do a lot of practice questions, and to make flash cards or outline annotations out of the questions you get wrong.

Essay Writing on the California Bar Examination

The majority of candidates who fail the California Bar Examination do so because of the written section, not the MBE. Essays on the California Bar test your ability to spot issues and analyze facts. This is hard to do under timed conditions. Successful applicants are better at outlining than unsuccessful ones. Outlining is a key skill that can’t be developed without practice, but it isn’t hard to sharpen these skills. California Bar Exam essays often follow predictable, standard formats, and it is relatively easy to become familiar with these formats.

Analysis is the most difficult task. Many applicants fail the California Bar Exam because they sacrifice good analysis on the alter of reciting elaborate boilerplate definitions. Although the corporate bar review companies do a good job teaching the law, they stupidly reinforce the myth that the bar examiners are not going to respect essays that don’t have all the black letter law spelled out in horn book detail.

You will display a better understanding of the material if you emphasize analysis. Black letter law knowledge can be displayed at the outlining stage. For example, if an answer to a negligence essay is split up into sections labeled “duty – breach – causation – damages” it isn’t too important to include a long definition of negligence.  The answer with better analysis always gets a higher score than the answer with the better definitions!

The California Performance Test

California was the first jurisdiction to add a “practical essay” examination called the Performance Test, back in 1983. Today, this type of written bar exam assignment is common across the country, but the California version remains the longest and most difficult in the nation.

The performance test is a self-contained exercise in which the candidate has to read a memo from a law partner and then follow instructions. There is a hypothetical legal file and a library of law. The task is to connect the key facts from the file to the elements of law presented in the library, in a way that is responsive to the instructions.

Many bar applicants are intimidated by the Performance Test, but the basic writing skills are similar to those required to do well on standard essays. Issue spotting, outlining and analysis are central. Students will not develop these skills by studying outlines! Successful candidates practice.

A Sensible Schedule for First-Time Takers

Let’s split your preparation period into four quarters, and look at what successful applicants tend to be doing during each quarter:

1st Quarter:  bar lectures, black letter law study, practice MBE questions

2nd and 3rd Quarters:  bar lectures, black letter law study, MBE questions, essay and performance practice, refine black letter law knowledge.

4th Quarter: memorize the law; outline essays and performance tests, refine MBE techniques.

Scheduling Considerations for Repeat Takers

Bar examination veterans face an entirely different situation from first-timers, and repeat candidates often are quite different from one another.  (See our page devoted to repeating the bar exam for more insights.) More often than not, we advise repeat candidates to stay away from most or all of the corporate bar review substantive lectures. After a certain short period of black letter law review, we advise repeat candidates to concentrate on practice, with the MBE being at the core of the student’s work throughout the process.

Physical and Emotional Balance

Law knowledge and test-taking technique are not the only keys to success on the California Bar Examination. Many knowledgeable and skillful applicants fail the bar examination because they are simply too physically and/or emotionally exhausted to perform at their best for three days in a row when it matters most.

Sports psychology teaches us that the mind-body connection can be a key to peak performance. Many bar applicants work too hard during their preparation period. They study too much, eat poorly, and don’t exercise enough. Many successful bar applicants are healthier on the first day of the exam than they were the day after they graduated from law school.

It makes sense to strive for physical and emotional balance during the bar exam season.  Take the time to have fun and relax now and then – it’s worth points on the bar examination!

The Bottom Line

Passing the California Bar Examination is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences in the life of a young lawyer. The bar exam is practical, not academic. It’s a pass / fail test! Successful candidates treat the process – and themselves – with respect.

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