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)
May 16, 2006
Every conversation I have with my grandmother, who is 97 and lives alone in an apartment in the Bronx (the proverbial Jewish grandmother who still makes the best chicken soup ever), ends with me saying, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow;” and her answering, “Please god, I should live so long.”
I have the same conversation with my first year students around this time of year. “Don’t worry,” I say, “it will be much easier next year.” They answer: “if I’m still here.” I wonder if the whole first year experience is about whether students feel that they belong at law school. Law school is a major decision, and one that sets you on a clear, defined path. This is writing, “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up” in ink and not crayon. (Practicing law is not the only option a student has with a law degree, but I think a lot of students fresh out of college see it that way.)
Unlike European university systems, we don’t really ask students to make big decisions about their future until they graduate from college. We do require some forethought, i.e.: you shouldn’t necessarily choose philosophy as a major if you want to be a structural engineer (and I am by no means certain that this is entirely true…). But, for the most part, coming to law school may be the first decision a student makes about a concrete future. And that is scary.
I think first year law students spend a lot of time contemplating their decision: what if I made a mistake? What if I am not as smart as everyone has told me so far? What if I can’t do this? What if I hate law school? Perhaps, first year law students wonder most often, “do I belong here?” And sadly, they see their first year exams as the oracle that will answer all their fearful questions. But, exams are not the answer. They are merely a tool and never the finished product.
The first year of law school is the hardest for a number of reasons. We ask students to learn a new language and then become extremely fluent in it. We assign thousands of pages of reading in this new language and expect them to not only remember it all, but derivatively use it to answer other questions. Most of all, we ask students to go months and months without feedback on their progress, and then evaluate almost the entire academic year on the basis of a three hour exam. This is particularly difficult when you question everyday whether attending law school was the right choice. There are very few external cues to affirm a student’s choice to come to law school
Another factor in the mix is money. A law student, even one who does not continue beyond the first year, may have accrued a tremendous amount of debt. I remember, during my first year, asking myself exactly how smart could I be to pay someone to torture me and then pay interest for years and years on top of that. Not so much smart, I thought.
The reality is that there will be students who won’t be here next year. I can’t say every student makes it through their first year, but most will. And to the students who I will see next year, I say this, “It will be better. I promise.” I do remember vividly, at the beginning of my second year, feeling like I owned the place. And now that I’ve paid back most of the loans, maybe I do. (ezs)