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How To Pass the Bar Exam, Part 1: Pre-Exam Advice

Professor of Law Emeritus, The Ohio State University

Earlier in my teaching career I gave bar review lectures all over the country for a ten year period.  Thus I witnessed thousands of people facing bar exams, heard their concerns, gave them advice, and eventually developed a mini-lecture I threw into the mix containing my advice on taking bar exams.  That lecture, somewhat developed, is below.

A.  Before the Bar Exam

1. Calm yourself down.  Yes it’s the most important exam you will ever take in your life.  But, for the reasons I explain below, you are highly likely to sail right through the experience so that in a few months you will be raising your hand and swearing to be a respectable member of the bar.  If you graduated from a good law school and passed all of your courses with no danger of flunking them or even making a “D”, your chances of passing the bar are excellent even if you do little studying for it (which would be a bad decision).  If you graduated from any accredited law school you likely got a first rate education in the principles of the law, and, again, the bar exam should be a small (if unpleasant) hill to climb, nothing like Mt. Everest.

So (deep breath) this is going to happen and is almost certainly going to end well.

2. Study smart. Okay, studying is hard work, but whoever said you only get to do easy things in life? This is your chosen profession—right?—so it deserves the effort necessary to acquire the knowledge to begin your career. You should take a bar review course, go to the lectures, study the guides, but—and this is a major “but”—you should do so with a new goal in mind.

If your goal on the bar exam is to memorize all the law that might possibly be tested, that’s of course impossible, and you might as well quit now. No one could do that. In law school your goal (rightfully) was to make the highest grade you could on every exam you took. But on the bar exam (happily) your goal is very different. You don’t need to ace this exam. You only need to make a passing grade. That leads to altered study tactics.

Look at the list of the subjects tested on the bar and divide them into categories: (a) subjects I understood, liked, and did well in, (b) subjects I understood and with a review can bring back into temporary mastery, (c) subjects I can learn enough to get by, and (d) subjects where I don’t have a chance of gaining the knowledge necessary to do well when asked about this subject on the bar exam.  For items in category (a) brushing up is all that is necessary.  For (b) you need to concentrate to regain information you once had and bring it back into service.  For (c) pay attention to the fundamentals and ignore everything else.  And for (d) do nothing.

What?  Yes, nothing.  When I give this advice I’m assuming (d) consists of one or two subjects you never had in law school, subjects that are complex, and subjects that if you flunk them are not going to keep you from passing the bar.  Let me give you examples of (d).

I have taken two bar exams in my life: Illinois in 1968, immediately after I graduated from law school and moved to Chicago, and Indiana two years later when I moved to Indianapolis to begin teaching at the Indiana Indianapolis School of Law.  For the first exam I signed up for and religiously attended a bar review course, read the materials, and passed the exam.  For the second I was teaching law (Contracts and Commercial Law subjects) and I decided not to take another bar review course.  I made this decision for two reasons.  First, I was not that far removed from having just taken that first bar review course and even still had my materials.  Secondly, as I made the decision I was grading the exams of third year students who would be my competitors and I remember thinking, immodestly, “with one hand tied behind my back” I could best their collective efforts on the exam.  The Indiana bar exam, however, had two subjects on it that were not tested in Illinois: Tax and Labor Law.  I had had courses at the University of Texas Law School in both subjects, but I remembered almost nothing about either.  I also decided not to study either, and just devoted myself to reviewing the things that fit in categories (a), (b), and (c) above.  As a consequence the bar examiner who graded my essay exams on these two subjects likely concluded that I’d flunk the exam.  Ah, but the examiners who graded my answers to the Contracts and Commercial Law questions (which took up a much larger part of the exam) assumed I earned the top grade given that year on the exam.  The truth was somewhere in between, comfortably above the pass line.

So you can “punt” on a subject or two, particularly if they are not key components of the exam (such as the core courses every law school offers in the first and second years).

3. The night before the exam: GET A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP! One of the major things you’ll be tested on is how well your brain works. If you spent the night cramming for the exam with coffee, drugs, or who know what, your brain will be fried and your exam performance dismal. A rested brain is more important than any last minute knowledge gained.

4. If Big Things go wrong. What if the unexpected happens—you get sick, a family member dies, you receive a distress call from your best friend to fly across country and rescue him/her—should you postpone the exam? Obviously things can occur that would keep any rational person from taking the exam on time, and I’m not saying otherwise. But here should be your rule: if it is at all possible to take the exam, do so. I’ve too often seen students with the opposite attitude (“I hope something comes up so I can duck the exam!”). A postponed bar exam has a way of never getting done. I’ve known legal careers wrecked because the postponement of the exam was the end of everything.  Don’t let that happen.  Take the damn exam and get it over with.

Call if off only if that is the only rational choice.  There was man who was very sick but nonetheless took the Indiana exam, toughing it out, finishing the whole thing, and then returned after the end of the final day to his hotel room, and died in his sleep.  He was subsequently admitted to the bar, but it was a posthumous honor—not at all what he’d been planning on.

5. If Little Things go wrong. You need to consider ahead of time the small matters that can turn the exam experience into a nightmare, and develop fail-safe backups. I’m referring to such things as getting the date or time of the exam wrong, the alarm clock that doesn’t go off, the car that won’t start, the pen or computer that won’t work, etc.  One year in Ohio an applicant thought that the three day exam started on a Wednesday when it really started on a Tuesday.  Major mistake, that.

When I took the Illinois bar exam, on the second day thereof, my alarm clock failed to go off, and I’d have slept right through much of the morning session but for the fact that my phone rang at 8 a.m.  It was a friend of mine asking if I’d seen the morning paper: the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia.  I was very sorry for Czechoslovakia, but I was delighted by that phone call.  So you might think ahead how a little help from your friends can be useful in making sure you don’t have unnecessary problems with the only bar exam you plan on ever taking.

Make sure you understand well ahead of time all the rules of the exam, particularly what you’re allowed to bring with you into the exam and what not, and how to turn in the exam. Learn the honor code and pay attention to its rules.

Check back for Part 2: Taking the Bar Exam, on Thursday.


About the Author

Douglas Whaley is a Professor of Law Emeritus at The Ohio State University. He is the author of seven casebooks, all published by Aspen, three Gilbert's Summaries of the Law, numerous law review articles, and one novel. He has received nine awards from three law schools for outstanding teaching. The columns he writes for this website are mostly adapted from his popular blog:


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