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How to Pass the Bar Exam, Part 2: Exam Day and Afterward

Professor of Law Emeritus, The Ohio State University

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on passing the bar exam.

Taking the Bar Exam: Exam Day

1. Fill out the exam as instructed. When the starting signal is given, first set up your time schedule. DON’T MAKE MISTAKES ON THIS.

2. The Questions.

There will be good moments in the bar exam, for example a question on the subject of your seminar paper, or concentrating on your favorite subject in which you made your top grade in law school.  Treasure these moments, but don’t dwell on their glory.  Smile, nail it, and move one.

On objective questions guess unless told that there are penalties for so doing. (If enough people miss the same objective question the graders will frequently throw it out—so get in there and do your share by missing it too).

On essay questions, read each question carefully, trying to get a sense of its bigger meaning. Issues will jump out at you. This will give you a sense of relief, but it’s no time to relax. Now re-read the question carefully, underlining important points, making marginal notes about the issues or thoughts you want to include. Don’t assume away the hard parts and make the exam too easy. This isn’t a contest of wits; it’s a performance, and you’ll get few points for evading the hard issues.

Don’t repeat the facts except as necessary to your analysis. Unnecessarily repeating the facts is a waste of precious time. Good attorneys, however, do use the facts to make their points (“The plaintiff chose to send an email because it was faster than the postal service, thus showing the plaintiff’s emphasis on speed”).

What issue should you start with if there’s more than one in a question? Here’s valuable advice: start with the most important issue, the most vital one, the one at the heart of it all. One of the things being tested is whether you can spot what’s vital. If your answer starts with something petty that no lawyer is going to spend much time on, this tells the examiner you don’t know what’s important and what’s not, a bad message to convey. The exam has so much time pressure that if you mustn’t spend your valuable minutes on minutia; you must  hone in on the heart of a controversy.

On essay questions, if you don’t know, fake it. What? Yes, fake it. Pretend you’re the monarch of your own jurisdiction and boldly invent the rules. Our law is not so perverse that it deviates much from common assumptions, and your guess will often get you some points, whereas a blank sheet of paper will get you nothing. Some of you reading this are very, very good at this skill, having honed it through years of educational endeavors, and it’s time to strut your stuff.

On the usual law school exams you have time for exploration of lots of things: policy, minor arguments, etc.  But not the bar exam.  The examiners are busy people with large stacks of papers to grade.  They are looking at essay exams with one question only foremost in their minds: what sort of lawyer will this applicant make.  Does he/she know the black letter rules of law and how to apply them?  Therefore make sure you do state all the black latter rules of law as clearly as you can, apply them well, and throw in a policy statement only if you have time.  Keep saying to yourself, “Law, law, law.”  Demonstrate your knowledge of the law.  If you have a pertinent real life comment about what a real lawyer would do (settle this turkey, for example) state that if you are sure it’s right.  Show the examiner what a stellar attorney you will be.

After the Bar Exam

1. If you have more parts of the exam yet to take, stop any thoughts or discussions about this part of the exam immediately and concentrate on the upcoming ones. Panic later, when the complete exam is over.

2. Very important rule: don’t do postmortems on the exam by discussing questions with the other applicants. Violating this rule is a sure way to panic yourself. Taken collectively you all know more than any one of you knows individually, so if you want to scare yourself good about the only bar exam you’re ever planning on taking, postmortems are a sure way to do it. If someone starts to talk about the bar exam to you (“Did you see the promissory estoppel issue in question two?”) walk away quickly. You don’t need to hear things you may have missed. Go out and have a drink with non-law students.  Have several.  You have months of waiting ahead of you.  Fill those moments with constructive things, and forget the exam until the happy moment arrives when the results are posted and you learn that you’ve passed.  Then throw a party.  It’s likely you really have just taken your last exam.  That’s worth celebrating.

3. Swearing-In Ceremony.  One of the happiest moments of your life is raising your hand and taking the oath that turns you into a lawyer.  Consider that your entire education, starting in pre-school, has led you to this event.  Everyone who loves you will congratulate you.  They should.  Congratulate yourself.

So, good luck with this pesky bar exam and with the career that awaits you in the life of the law.  I’m rooting for you.

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