I spent 10 years co-directing bar support programs at CUNY School of Law and currently work at the AccessLex Institute's Helix Bar Review. I've helped many students pass the bar exam. I'm hoping to share some of what I've learned through that process, and help give you the confidence that you, too, can pass the bar exam. I also want you to know that the struggle will be worth it in the end.
It is important to give the bar exam the respect it deserves. This is not like any other exam you have ever taken. You well need to put in more work than you think you do.
DO NOT WORK
Recognizing that this is a privileged thing to say, it is still very important. It doesn’t matter whether you have worked all through law school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve always worked. You will not be giving yourself a good chance to pass the bar if you work.
This is a short period of your life – 10 weeks. Try saving up money for a bar review course and to live off of during this period. There are also banks that offer bar study loans. Borrow from loved ones if you can. Barter for things that you need – you can repay everyone when you are a lawyer.
Many law students support their families while going to school, financially and emotionally. This won’t work during bar study. You need to come up with a plan so that others are not financially dependent on you during this period. That will require some strategic thinking and advanced planning. But it is a necessity.
This is the time to invest in yourself. You will be much better able to care for your loved ones and your community once you have passed the bar and landed your dream job. Let them care for you now.
Students often ask whether they really need to take a commercial bar review course. The answer is yes. The bar review course provide a great deal of resources that you will need to succeed.
First, bar review companies provide you with the law that you need to know. They have studied bar exams more than anyone, and will pinpoint what you really need to know and will help you prioritize your studying. This is especially critical if you are taking the Uniform Bar Exam because the National Conference of Bar Examiners use a variety of sources for determining the “general principles of law” that they test on. There is no one place you can go to learn the law, absent using a commercial bar review course. NCBE suggests that one look at their older essay exams to determine the sources of law that are used. However studying solely from past essays will only give you a limited picture of what can be tested and will not be sufficient. You need a more comprehensive source, which is where the bar review companies come in.
Additionally, the commercial bar review companies provide you with practice materials. The key to passing the bar exam its strategic practice. The bar review companies will give you essays, MBEs, and MPTs to practice from.
This is far from an ideal or equitable system, but it is the system we have. Unless someone has the resources to create an entirely open source bar review company, applicants must pay for a commercial bar review course in order to have a good shot at passing the bar the first time.
This post goes out to those of you who love someone who is studying for the bar. No one is their best selves when they are studying for the bar. Your loved one will need space and time to study. They will also probably need you to cut them some slack with the everyday chores of life.
The best thing you can do for your loved one is to leave them alone, and periodically do something nice for them. Motivation, affirmation, and encouragement are key to the bar study process.
That is how you can help – your bar studier will need to be regularly reminded that they are awesome and smart. Simple things like leaving post-it notes with encouraging phrases like “You Can Do It!” around their living and studying spaces can go a long way. Flowers, chocolates, and massages can’t hurt either.
Don’t worry, once they get past the bar exam, they will return to their lovable selves. They are under a lot of pressure now, but eventually that pressure releases.
Over at the Legal Skills Prof Blog (a blog that I read daily, and very much appreciate), there is a post that focuses on the incredible pressure that law graduates feel to pass the bar on the first time. The post highlights a quote from an article on Above the Law about retaking the bar.
I’m grateful that the post acknowledges the outsized pressure that law school graduates feel to pass the bar on the first try. I have often heard people speak as though their careers and lives will be over if they don’t pass the bar the first time. That isn’t true, of course, but the pressure is very real.
However, the author of the post points to law school admissions as the solution – simply stop admitting people who are unlikely to pass the bar. That analysis shifts the focus to the wrong place. Yes, law schools have a responsibility not to take money and 3-4 years from people who are unlikely to succeed in law school and on the bar exam. And, yes, law schools have a responsibility to give their students the tools they need to succeed on the bar exam.
But, it’s not law school admissions that has created the overwhelming pressure to pass the bar on the first try. The fact that first time bar passage and employment stats are seen as the only metrics of whether a law school is worthy of existence is the problem. U.S. News, law journals, and other media outlets only focus on a school’s first time bar pass rate, as if passing the bar on the second try means you shouldn’t have been admitted to law school in the first place. That hurts our students and alums. Even the ABA is coming around to recognizing that passage rates of repeat takers matters.
We all know the stories of famous people who took the bar more than once (JFK Jr., Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.) We need to start normalizing retaking the bar. Often my graduates who need to retake the bar are shocked to find out that some of the people working in their law firms and some of their faculty members didn’t pass the bar on the first try. But they only find that out after they have failed the bar and had to “come out” to those around them. We all seem to buy in to the notion that first time pass rates are all that matters. That idea is harmful to so many of our recent graduates.
Of course, we should always strive to help our students pass the bar on the first try. But, it is only through destigmatizing taking the bar more than once that we will begin to make a dent in the enormous pressure we put on recent graduates to pass the bar on the first time. That pressure itself can lead to tremendous anxiety, which gets in the way of achieving a passing score. Passing the bar on the first try is as much a psychological feat as it is an academic one.
We owe it to our students and recent graduates to do better. We also owe it to their future clients to care about the mental health of members of our profession.
This post is dedicated to those of you who found out this week that you have to take the bar exam again. Retaking the bar is not easy, especially if you’ve already taken it more than once. But, it is absolutely doable. Many people have taken the bar exam multiple times. It will end up […]
Why do activists need a blog about passing the bar? Isn’t everyone going to take the same test? Isn’t studying for a standardized test the same for everyone, regardless of political bent or the reason they want to become a lawyer? Kind of.
It’s true that the vast majority of what is included on this blog is relevant to everyone seeking to become a licensed attorney. However, folks who went to law school because they want to change the world – to destroy injustice – come to the bar exam with a different perspective and therefore have a few different considerations.
First, while a lot of people view the bar exam as just another standardized test to get through, many social justice activists see the bar exam as an oppressive tool that keeps poor people and people of color out of the legal profession. While that is beyond the scope of this blog, it is clear that the bar exam had a race problem and the legal profession has a race problem.
It can be very difficult to pour your heart and soul into studying for an exam that you do not think actually serves the purpose it claims to serve, which is to test the minimal competence needed to become an attorney. Yet, that is exactly what you need to do.
I often tell our 1Ls that the most radical thing they can do is focus on law school, graduate, and do the work they came to law school to do. The bar exam is part of that. Fighting the exam is not the fight you came to law school to have. You will be much better equipped to fight the exam after you pass it and obtain a law degree. So the best advice I have is to put aside the fight for 10 weeks and focus on tackling the exam.
The exam questions themselves can pose problems for social justice oriented individuals as well. Often, the issues people face on the bar exam are not issues you are expecting to face in your legal work. When they are, for example if you hope to do criminal defense work, the limited formulaic analysis you are expected to do is a far cry from the zealous advocacy you will do in practice. Not only is this frustrating, but it can cause you to overthink the questions you are being asked and can sometimes lead you down the wrong path.
It’s important to remember where you are and what your task is. Your only goal should be to give the bar examiners what they are looking for so that you can check this off the list of hoops you had to jump through on your way to your fulfilling your dream of becoming a social justice lawyer. Writing answers that challenge the status quo or argue that the law is unjust will not get you points. Ultimately points is what you need to pass the bar. An anonymous bar grader somewhere may learn something, but your impact will not be far reaching. It will be much greater when you are licensed and fighting for clients and causes.
What is not on the bar exam can be equally as frustrating as what is on the bar exam. No one has a race on the bar exam (with the exception of an occasional MPT). There have been no same sex couples or queer folks on the bar exam. There are rarely poor people on the bar exam. Every property or decedent’s estates question involves someone with considerable assets and multiple properties. These questions probably do not reflect the community you come from or the people you want to serve. Individuals living with physical or mental impairments appear occasionally on an MPT or in a torts essay, but only ever as the victim of something that exacerbates their conditions.
What is on the bar that might be triggering? Rape. Assault. There is violence throughout the bar exam and survivors of such violence might have difficulty when faced with such questions. It is important to recognize that you will likely see these questions and to come up with a strategy before exam day for how you will handle it. You may want to work with a professional psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or other counselor during law school and the bar study period so that you feel ready to handle triggering questions should they arise on exam day.
This blog will feature some advice and words of encouragement for those taking the journey from social justice activists to social justice attorneys. My biggest advice – keep going. The world needs you to do the work you came to law school to do.
 For example, in July 2014, 87% of white graduates from ABA accredited law schools passed the New York State Bar Exam, compared to 81% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, 68% of Hispanic/Latinx, and 65% of Black African American graduates of ABA accredited law schools. This disparity is not isolated to a single exam. Similar numbers are found for each July exam from 2005-2014. Cumulative pass rates (for individuals who take the bar twice) demonstrate racial disparities as well. The MBE mean scores for first time takers who graduated from ABA accredited law schools and took the NY Bar Exam in July 2014 was 147.5 for Caucasian/White graduates, 143.5 for Asian/Pacific Islanders, 139.2 for Hispanic/Latinx, and 136.5 for Black/African Americans. Similar racial disparities were reflected in mean written scores and overall scores as well. The New York Bar Exam has a documented disparity between the cumulative passing rates of ABA graduates by gender as well, with female graduates passing at lower rates than male graduates on every exam from July 2010-July 2013. New York State Unified Court System Advisory Committee on the Uniform Bar Exam, Appendix 14 Data from NYSBLE, http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/bar-exam/appendices.shtml.
 “The UBE is designed to test knowledge and skills that every lawyer should be able to demonstrate prior to becoming licensed to practice law.” National Conference of Bar Examiners http://www.ncbex.org/exams/ube/