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Editor: Jeffrey R. Baker
Pepperdine University
School of Law

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Baker's Good Advice and Strong Suggestions for the Bar Exam

Law school graduation is one of the most anticlimactic moments of a student’s life. After years of study, students celebrate a massive achievement on the weekend, then start studying for the bar exam on Monday, knowing that they face months of sedentary stress and boredom, followed by the acute anxiety of the test, followed by months of waiting in suspension for results, followed by 40 years of work. It’s a drag.

I just received news that I passed the February administration of the California Attorneys Exam. This is my third bar in 14 years, so I feel like giving some advice to students climbing down into the bar hole.

Do what you do. The bar exam is an extraordinarily demanding test, but it’s just a test. After college, law school, entrance exams and finals, you know how to take a test. Whatever has gotten you to this point will work; you just need more of it. Do not abandon your study rhythms and techniques. Do not abandon what works for you in a panic for this last, big test. The task is not new, even if the volume, pace and stakes are on a steeper trajectory.

Be confident that you know what you know. You are facing a mountain of information to memorize and digest. You are relearning subjects and maybe learning new subjects from scratch. You do not have time to relearn and drill everything all the time. Rather, as you proceed through practice tests, measure the things you do well and not so well. If you are getting 80% of the Torts questions right, stop studying torts; you’ve got it. You won’t forget it. If you’re killing Con Law; set it aside for Property. Focus increasingly on the subjects where you’re weakest. Start with long outlines of everything, then narrow them progressively until you’re spending the last week drilling flash cards or lists of only the subjects where you’re weakest.

Get to know the test and practice it. In addition to your prep courses, consume all the information you can find on your bar’s website and elsewhere. Devour the bar’s study guides and old exams. Understand the game, the grading metrics, the weights and percentages. You can learn the law plenty well enough, but understanding the test is your secret weapon. You can and should eliminate all the surprises from the exam, except the questions themselves. Practice, practice, practice, and practice every element of the test. Time yourself and learn your pace. If you need to answer a question per minute on the MBE, practice it. If you need to write an essay an hour, practice it. If you are handwriting the test (like I did, see note infra), but you don’t usually handwrite anything, practice. You need to work on your handwriting, and you actually need to exercise the muscles in your shoulder, arm and hands to write for that long. It’s an endurance sport.

Take the simulated NCBEX MBE. About 4 – 6 weeks out from the test, block off a day to take the simulated MBE by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. It costs a little, but the psychological effect is worth it. Your prep courses will offer many practice exams, but there is no substitute for the real thing. Get a feel for real-live MBE questions to calibrate yourself and to compare your progress against the practice tests. It is scaled and timed, so I believe it is the best measure of your actual progress. It will either give you renewed confidence and peace of mind, or it will wake you up and give you increased motivation, which are both good for you. (Try not to freak out, though. Anxiety yields diminishing results.)

Rest for a day or two before the test. The test functions just like an endurance race. I am a runner and train for races throughout the year, and every coach, runner and article will advise the athlete to taper. Tapering is the gradual reduction of training and work in the run-up to a race so that you can start with fresh legs. For the test, rest your mind and your body. You will not forget what you learned, and you will be much, much sharper if you have gotten good sleep and cleared your head. This is not skating on your preparation; rest is the preparation. Be fresh for the test. Seriously, sharpen your No. 2s, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good breakfast.

Don't forget the rest of your life. Take care of the people you love, and let them take care of you. Take breaks. Don't give up your exercise and fitness. Avoid excessive sugar and alcohol and stimulants. (Except caffeine; there's no such thing as too much caffeine.) Sleep in moderation. Inevitably, all of these parts of your life will degrade as you draw nearer to the test; don't sweat it. Just remember, the healthier you are, physically and spiritually, the better you'll do on the test.

Remove Distractions, Prepare for Everything, Avoid Decision Fatigue. On test day, remove all conceivable, foreseeable distractions that will create stress or impede your timely appearance at the test. Avoid decision fatigue. President Obama famously only wears blue or gray suits and has a certain number of shirts and ties and eats the same meals during the day, to save brain space to make real decisions. Do the same. Before you leave home the day before the test, pack and plan all your clothes and food for every day and time of the test. Make a list, make a chart, make a schedule. Lay out your clothes the night before. Set four alarm clocks. Take food for your hotel room so that you do not have to travel to restaurants before or during the test.

Although it may be more expensive, stay in a hotel adjacent to or within walking distance of the testing site. Arrive the night before, and do not leave. Do not drive to the test the morning of, if you can afford it. Do not risk traffic or accidents. In February, I parked my car in the hotel garage next door to the testing site in Pasadena and did not move it until I finished the test, three days later.

I also did not take elevators on test days, but took the stairs every time to avoid the risk of an equipment failure.

With thanks to my wife, I had a great bag of nonperishable but healthy food in the room so that I did not have to worry about it. Especially during the lunch break during the tests, you should not have to worry about standing in line with scores of other people strung out on fear and talking about the questions they just botched. At my second bar exam, in Alabama, seven years after law school, I ate PB&Js in the parking lot.

I also chose to write my exams instead of risking the complications of using my laptop and relying on internet service in the testing site. If my pen crashes, I have ten more at my seat. If the computer crashes, I would have been in a panicked crisis. In California this year, there were some limited IT issues during the test, and students had to shuttle back and forth to the proctors or to switch to writing and disrupt their flow. Problems are rare and getting rarer, but I was not willing to risk the distraction.

Play the odds. At the risk of being too cynical or cocky, look around the room and imagine the respective pass rate for the test you’re taking. Discount that rate for re-takers, then tell yourself that you’re at least as smart and talented as, say, 20% of the people in the room. Somebody is going to fail, but the odds are that it is not you, especially if you have put in the time, the effort and the miles to load this stuff into your head. You’re smart enough. You’re good enough, and, doggone it, people like you.

You are smart enough for this test, and you know that you are because you have completed law school. The test is about knowledge, but it is also about memory, timing, practice, calmness and sharp writing. Practice, practice, practice.

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