May 18, 2006
Clearing the Last Hurdle: the Bar Exam
I am always amazed this time of year by how many graduating law students fail to prepare intensely for the bar exam that looms just ahead. Most take the exam very seriously, but a few each year apparently seem to think the exam a fairly easy hurdle. I don't get it. After all of the expense, work, and stress of law school, how can anyone let up for the bar exam?
Perhaps they look at the pass rates and decide that there is no way they can end up in the bottom twenty percent of the takers. I remember the story of a student who graduated first in his class at a good school, obtained a prestigious judicial clerkship, only to fail the exam and lose the clerkship. I have always suspected that he became wrapped up in his clerkship duties and thought to himself, "How can I possibly fail the bar exam after graduating first in my class?" I was in law school at the time, and the story scared the socks off me.
I suppose it is understandable that students who have been far from the bottom twenty percent in law school would assume that they can avoid the bottom twenty percent of bar takers without much work; but that assumption overlooks the nature of the exam. The exam tests concepts many takers have not encountered since the first semester of law school. What makes them think that material that old can be recalled and applied with a half-hearted review, especially when the material required so much preparation for the final exam when the material was fresh?
Some, I am sure, fail to prepare properly because they do not believe they can afford the fee for a bar prep course. Again, however, I find it amazing that anyone who has invested three years of tuition, budget-breaking book purchases, and lost wages chooses the bar exam as the best opportunity to save money. Too much is riding on the exam to spare expense at this point. Anything spent on preparing for the exam will be more than offset by a year in practice, and no amount saved can justify gambling that year on recalling three years of legal rules without an intense review.
Perhaps some students take review courses but never devote significant time to further study outside the review classes . Again, the choice is amazing, given what law school exams require. How many students actually get through law school by reading through their class notes once before finals? What could possibly lead them to believe that the bar exam requires little study beyond sitting through a series of lectures in the weeks leading up to the exam?
Nevertheless, every year brings tales of top students around the country failing the bar. Aside from the cases of extreme test anxiety, lack of test preparation is the only thing that explains the failures. They may be saving money, becoming too involved in newly acquired employment, or merely underestimating the exam; but they are rolling the dice on the most important high-stakes test of their legal careers.
Throughout law school, they have had to prepare intensely in order to succeed on finals, and this final is the biggest one they have faced, covering vastly more material than any other they have taken. Should it be a surprise that it requires substantially more preparation?
The bar exam itself should not frighten students; but under-preparation should scare them to death. We need not terrify our students about taking the exam, but we should go out of our way to terrify them about failing to prepare. The exam is grueling, but ultimately no real threat for those who have spent the two months ahead of it preparing intensely, both in the review classes and on their own time.
No one who has worked as hard as our students have worked to get through law school should trip over the last hurdle. As their coaches, we need to make sure they keep running hard to the end of the race and that they not treat the final lap to the bar as a cool down lap. (dbw)
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