Bar Exam Preparation – For Law Students

Taking the bar exam can be an overwhelming event. Preparing for it will be. Having a plan in place before you begin to study for the bar exam not only increases your chances of passing it the first time, it will keep you sane when your law school friends are losing their minds worrying about whether they are doing too much, too little, or whether they will actually finish studying by exam day.

I had a plan and followed it with all the discipline I could muster. I did not enjoy one second of it, but I passed the Rhode Island and Massachusetts bar exams the first time I took them. I’ve shared my simple strategy for preparing for the bar exam with other law students and those test-takers passed. I decided to share this simple but effective approach with anyone who comes to this website and wants a suggestion for preparing for a bar exam for one reason – because other test-takers before me were generous with their experiences and now it’s my turn to pass it on.

BE CAUTIOUS! What I have posted in the pages that follow is merely a suggestion. It worked for me. It worked for others. It might work for you. Like everything in the law, the facts of the case dictate. In other words, you cannot rely on what worked for one law student to work for you. You will have to massage this plan to fit the facts in your case. However, if you appreciate the discipline that is the foundation of this approach and build your plan of attacking the bar exam on it, you have a much greater chance of passing the first time you take it. I am not responsible if this plan doesn’t work for you nor do I expect any credit if it does. If you choose to follow it and you pass, I do have one request – share what you did with a future struggling law student as I am sharing what I did with you. After all, it’s only fair.

The plan laid out in the following pages is nothing more than my daily routine for every day between graduating law school and taking the bar exam. Beyond those pages are all my outlines from those days in the Summer of 2006. Yes, I am giving you every page of every outline I created in preparation for the Rhode Island and Massachusetts bar exams. I have not updated those outlines. I will not. Nevertheless, I suspect most of the law is still good. Some of it, however, might not be good. These outlines are here to help you craft your own outlines. If you rely on my pages as anything more than I intend them to be, you will be making a fool’s mistake. Remember, the only real benefit of outlining comes from the process of preparing them. By suffering as I sifted through volumes of information to find the balance between too little and too much, I learned enough of it to pass.

I hope what I offer in these pages helps you maintain the level of equanimity that you must maintain in order to have some quality of life while you study for this test. I hope you pass. Most of all, I hope you become a good lawyer after you pass and that you help other aspiring lawyers get to the same place that you are after today.

Bar Exam Prep: The Plan

What follows is my plan for preparing to pass the bar exam(s). It worked for me. It even worked for a few other test-takers who tried it on blind faith – and stuck with it even when they had doubt. I offer it here with the hope that it helps you navigate through what might be an overwhelming few months. I cannot make any promises that you will pass the bar if you do everything I suggest. Nevertheless, I will promise two things. First, if you put it in place and follow it closely, you will have more confidence during those moments when you might otherwise doubt what you are doing and how you are doing it. Second, that confidence alone will improve your quality of life during the months that preceed the exam(s).

Before you listen to what I did to help me pass the Rhode Island and Massachusetts bar exams with the hope that it might help you pass your exam(s), consider the following and adjust your plan accordingly. First, I used BARBRI and both the 6 and 3 day PMBR programs. I do not advocate for either and wonder, looking back on the experience, if I could have done without them. Since I cannot answer that question with any degree of reliability, let’s forget it. I suggest you use a commercial study program(s) as the substance (meat and potatoes) of your plan.

Second, I took the afternoon session of BARBRI. If you have a choice, I suggest you take your commercial study program during the time of day when you are NOT at your best. Save the time of day when you are your sharpest to do the real learning. I am serious about this suggestion. Watching lectures via video simply does not call upon your “A” game, so don’t waste it.

Finally, I moved away from any distractions for two months and as close as I could be to the place where BARBRI was offered. I saved 2 hours/day in commuting alone. That was 10 hours/week or 80 hours over two months. I also prepared a workspace that was conducive to learning and nothing else. The library is not likely the place to study for the bar. Please do not fool yourself that you are working by surrounding yourself with others who are fooling themselves that they are working. I find that being alone forces you to be more honest about your efforts. The group dynamic can be misleading.

The first 6 days of bar prep should be limited to the 6-day PMBR or an equivalent MBE prep course. I did nothing other than what was required to prepare for each day. Any time left over was mine and I didn’t use it for bar prep. This 6-day course was good for 3 reasons. First, it sets the mood. What I mean by that is simple – after your first practice MBE, you get a real sense for how much you don’t know about taking the bar exam. (I never said it set a good mood.) Second, it gives you solid experience (300 questions) answering MBE questions with the benefit of someone explaining each answer before you set out to do it on your own. Finally, it gives you about 2000+ practice questions with answers and explanations. These questions are the substance of your preparation.

First 1/3 of the day…

Here’s where we really get started.

The night before Day 7, set your alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. When it goes off in the morning, get out of bed. I am serious. Get out! It would be pathetic if you can’t make it one day without falling off the wagon. Brush your teeth and go directly to your “office.” No breakfast. No coffee.

Take out the first PMBR book (or PMBR substitute) and open it to the first subject area tested. Let’s say it is Evidence. Take out one brand new legal pad and write “EVIDENCE” at the top. Then write “#1” on the first line.

Tear out the answer sheet at the end of the Evidence section and turn it over. On the back, write the date and time you began the test. Flip it over and answer the first 50 questions under the same conditions – except for the time limit – as you would the real exam. When you have answered all 50 questions, turn the answer sheet over and record the time you finished and how long it took you to answer those 50 questions. Leave the room.

Have breakfast. Drink coffee. Don’t skimp. Drink very good, expensive coffee. When you finish, make a second cup of coffee and take it with you to your office. Quickly (without reading the answer) look over the answer key and mark on your answer sheet which questions you answered right and which you answered wrong. Record those results including the percentage correct on the back of the answer sheet next to today’s date. Now it’s time to do the heavy lifting.

For the next however long it takes, and it should take at least a few hours at the beginning, examine every single question and answer – even the questions you answered correctly. On the legal pad that you wrote “EVIDENCE” at the top of, begin to record in words that make sense to you rules, facts, and other stuff that you did not know before you answered that question. It might include something simple as a rule of law you were never taught or one of the many MBE trick questions that appear on every exam. This list will become VERY important. Each new item should be the next sequential number on the legal pad. After my first 50 question test, I had about 19 entries on the page. See MBE Daily Notes in the Outlines section of this website. What you are really trying to write on this pad are those things you want to remember but suspect you will forget.

Do NOT worry about your score. Doing well on the MBE is more about learning how to recognize the “right” answer and less – a lot less – about the actual substance of the question. I know this does not make sense. After all, I am suggesting that the law is not important. For purposes of the MBE, I just don’t think the law is nearly as important as knowing how to answer MBE questions. And the only way to learn how to answer an MBE question is to answer a few thousand of them. UGH!

Second 1/3 of the day…

After the morning session, I packed my lunch, went to the gym, ate my lunch, and went to BARBRI class. Watching BARBRI videos and filling in their outlines is brutal but it’s necessary. As strong as the urge will be to skip class and work on your own, I think you should go to every class. I am a sensory learner. Seeing it, hearing it, and complaining about it to the other suffering students in the class is actually a learning experience. I think you have to trust me on this one.

Final 1/3 of the day…

After BARBRI class, it is time for dinner. After dinner, I began to prepare my outline for whatever class was on the BARBRI schedule for that day. I typed my outlines. They are attached to this website for your review. Read all the warnings I’ve emphasized because you might be tempted to rely on my outlines rather than craft your own. That would be a BIG mistake.

I tried but often failed to complete an entire outline in one night. When that happened, I finished it the next day…or on the weekend…or when I could find spare time. The key to outlining is first to outline and second to find the balance between too little information that it’s simply not enough and too much information that it’s simply useless. I built my outlines from a variety of sources. These included the actual BARBRI fill-in the blank outlines, prior test-takers’ outlines, and other sources that clearly articulated what I needed to know.

I kept a file folder for each subject tested on the bar exams. In that folder, I kept my MBE legal pad, fill-in-the-blank BARBRI outline, my typed outline once I finished it, and my list of rules I was creating for that subject from the BARBRI state specific essay questions. See below. These neat files kept me organized and would be helpful when it came down to the homestretch.

After outlining the day’s subject matter or 9:00, whichever came first, I was done for the day. I never returned to MBE after the first 1/3 of the day unless MBE questions were on BARBRI’s daily schedule. Only then would I do MBE work after the morning.

At this point, I would drink a Corona (just one), call friends and family because I would not make/receive calls while I was studying, and watch a single episode of Boston Legal. I think it is essential that you purchase every recorded episode of Boston Legal on DVD and watch one each night. Afterwards, go to bed. I wish I could tell you that you will sleep like a baby. You probably won’t…

Repeat the same routine for the next 5 days answering the first 50 questions from the next subject in the PMBR book. At the end of the 6th day, you will have answered the first 50 questions in each subject tested on the MBE.

On Day 13, you are back to Evidence (assuming that was the first subject in the PMBR book). Before you begin to answer questions 51 – 100, you have to add a step. Take the legal pad with your Evidence notes on it and read the notes you made. When you finish reading the notes, answer the next 50 questions then follow the same routine you did for days 7 – 12. Be sure to continue to build on the notes on the legal pad. By the time I finished all the PMBR questions in both books, I had about 100 notes in each subject.

Every day from now until you’ve answered all the PMBR practice questions, read the notes on the legal pad for that day’s tested subject beginning with the first note on the page. By the time you finish all the PMBR questions in both books, you will have read the first day’s notes about 6 times or more. The repetition – seeing it over and over again – helped me to remember the stuff I wrote on those pads. And guess what. That was the stuff tested on the MBE. Those are likely the trick questions the evil people who write the MBE questions expect you to get wrong because many of those questions are illogical, impractical, and hardly relevant to the practice of law. Nevertheless, that’s the stuff that decides whether you will get a license to practice law. Go figure.

I took all the full PMBR and BARBRI practice MBE exams under testing conditions those companies offered. I reviewed the answers to those practice tests the same way I did my daily dose of 50 questions. I took the 3-day PMBR program at the end of BARBRI but I did not hang around for the video review of the answers to that test. By then, I knew how to grade my own test and review the answers. I did not need two days to do that. I did it in a few hours.

That’s all I have for preparing for the MBE. I do not recommend you do more MBE questions than what PMBR and BARBRI give you. In fact, I would only do the BARBRI MBE questions that appear on the BARBRI daily calendar and ignore the rest in the BARBRI books as far as preparing for the MBE. Your scores are going to rise and fall. Don’t sweat it. Absolutely do NOT listen to your nervous classmates who are going to stretch the truth about how well their scores are improving. Most want to believe what they are telling you is true. Stay away from that trap and stay focused on what matters.

Outlining provides the substance for the essays. However, the best way (for me) to learn how to answer bar exam essay questions was to read the bar exam essay questions and answers in the books they provide for your state(s). Bar exam essays must be answered as you would answer a first year law school exam – but with the polish of a third year law student who can cut to the chase. I think TRRAC (Topic sentence, Rule, Rule Proof, Application, and Conclusion) is the most effective method. In a pinch, I would fall back on IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion.

If you find yourself on a bar exam essay question and you just don’t know the rule of law, make one up. I don’t care what it is. What’s important is that you stick with that rule and argue the hell out of it in your Rule Proof, Application, and Conclusion. I’ll just bet you will do better with your made up rule than you would otherwise have done if you wrote nothing. Show the grader that you know how to argue. Chances are the person grading the essay might not know the rule either.

I found it helpful to highlight the rule of law in the essay answers in the BARBRI state essay book. I kept a word processing file for each essay subject. As I read and highlighted an answer, I typed those rules of law in that document. After a while, the rules repeated themselves but I typed them again nonetheless. Why? Because a quick glance at this document I created gave me a pretty good idea of the specific rules the examiners like to test. Those are the rules I wanted to spend my time with. I’ve included a sample of those rules int he Outlines section.

As for taking the practice essay questions that BARBRI graded and returned to you with a “grade” from one of their staff graders, I would do them but caution you not to be too concerned with the “grade.” I sometimes wondered who was grading these practice essays. Hmmm. I did not pay for any extra practice essays nor would I attend any extra weekend sessions.

I did my 50 PMBR questions on Saturday morning, finished up the outlines I couldn’t finish during the week, and quit. Sundays were off limits. Go to the beach. Do anything but do not study. You will get more out of giving your brain and eyes a chance to recover than you will by forcing them to do more. A note on your eyes. By the time the exam(s) are over, you may think you are going blind. I am serious. I called my optometrist to make an appointment. Fortunately, her husband is a lawyer. She told me to wait two weeks. I did. I can see again. Whew!

Two weeks until the exam…

By about two weeks from the exam, you should be finished with all of the PMBR MBE questions. Do not do any more. Use this time to work on state specific essays or the MEE essays, whichever or both (like Rhode Island) you will face, and the MPT if your state(s) use it.

Two days before the exam…

Stop! You are done. You cannot learn any more. Relax. Review a little each day those subjects you might feel week with. But don’t force it.

Night before the exam…

The night before each day of the bar exam, I stayed in a hotel attached to the testing center. In the morning, you simply don’t need the added stress of driving, parking, and arriving on time. I could tell you horror stories that others shared with me. I won’t. I enjoyed a leisurely morning and a nap at the afternoon break. At night, I enjoyed a nice meal, rented an overpriced hotel movie, and slept in one of those Westin Comfort Beds.

I brought with me to the hotel the files I created for each subject. In each file were my MBE legal pads and the documents I created containing the rules from the BARBRI essays. Before I left for the hotel, I removed my outlines from those files. It was too late to read them. Whatever value I was going to get from outlining I got. All I needed were those legal pads and a list of rules. Even then, I needed them like Linus needed his blanket because I didn’t use them. I watched movies, drank a beer, and slept. I suggest you do the same. Sometimes, less is more.