Thursday, August 20, 2020
It's been many months that some of our Spring 2020 graduates have been waiting to take postponed bar exams. Florida, for example, just recently postponed its postponed exam, from July to August and now to October. If that sounds exhaustingly frustrating, it is... So here's a suggestion for the many September/October bar takers that might just help rekindle a bit of the flames of learning:
Get your heads out of the books and instead take time each day to work through some of the latest current events because much that is in the news also relates to bar tested problem-solving.
For example, take today's federal court indictment following the early morning arrest of former White House adviser Steve Bannon on conspiracy charges: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-bannon-idUSKBN25G1J4. Try locating the indictment and the arrest warrant. Once found, here's a few things to ponder: (1) What authority if any does Congress have to adopt the criminal statutes that are the basis of today's indictment? (2) Did the federal government have probable cause to arrest Steve Bannon, and, if so, why? and, (3) What are the elements that the government must prove for the conspiracy charges?
Here's another possible bar-issue in the news: Many businesses and restaurants are delinquent on rent contracts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, some business owners are seeking rent abatement. Others are seeking reimbursement from their insurance contracts. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulrosen/2020/03/26/what-happens-with-contracts-amid-the-covid-19-pandemic/#774454d342af These sorts of things raise a number of bar issues, such as, (1) What contract law applies to these contracts? (2) Do the defendants have any contract defenses, such as impossibility? and, (3) How should courts interpret force majeure clauses?
Finally, here's another news item to tickle a bit of bar exam intrigue. This case involves whether a lawyer has a defamation claim against an online reviewer when the review stated that the lawyer "needed to go back to law school." https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/need-to-go-back-to-law-school-comment-isnt-libelous-appeals-court-rules After reading the article, here's some thoughts to ask: (1) What are the elements of defamation? (2) If you were an appellate court judge, would you reverse the lower court's decision on whether the statement was actionable and why or why not? and, (3) Does the lawyer have any First Amendment issues as a member of the bar (a public officer of the bar?) and why or why not?
Of course, there are lots more issues in the news, from the COVID-19 pandemic to election interference to protester arrests to lawsuits against the President seeking TRO's and PI's, etc. Search them out. Find the civil or criminal complaints. Figure out whether the courts have personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Focus on the substantive elements. If it's a civil case, figure out if you could intervene as a party in the case. Work through how you would rule or litigate these matters. In short, this is not time to turn your backs on the news. Our world needs your voices now more than ever. So, over the course of the next month or two in preparation for postponed bar exams, feel free to take breaks from the books and take time to talk through and work out what's happening in the legal news of today. And in the process, you'll be learning more about the law. (Scott Johns).
P.S. Not sure how to get started, here's a helpful link with summaries of current legal news-making events: https://www.abajournal.com/news/
P.S.S. For entering first-year law students, taking a gander through the daily news in academic support groups can help bring life to the law, whether they are studying contracts, or torts, or constitutional law, for example.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
So, most of you had a scheduled practice test this last week, or will have one soon. It’s likely you’re feeling many things, so let’s talk about what the score means, and what you can do.
First, the score tells you where you are NOW, not whether you will pass or fail. Before I tell you what you can do AFTER the exam, I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a bar taker. Right around July 1st she took a practice exam from BarBri. This was so long ago that you had to do everything by hand, including the grading. As she graded, it slowly occurred to her that her score was not great. Really not great. She got 90. Not 90%, but 90 questions right out of 200. Yikes. And she thought she was good at multiple choice. This came as quite a blow to her ego, and she was very distraught. There might have been some wallowing, crying, and ice cream.
So, after some wallowing, she did what I’m going to tell you to do, and ended up getting a 148 raw on the actual MBE. I only point this out because that’s an increase in 58 points. And trust me, if she can do it, you can too.
So, first and foremost, remember that the practice test is PRACTICE. It’s designed to help you learn. You have 4 weeks, and in some cases more, before the bar exam. That means you are still learning!
Next, if you didn’t do well, allow yourself some time to wallow. Grab the ice cream, go for a run, clear your head. Do what you need to do. Then come back, and let’s assess and learn.
First, get out an excel spreadsheet or make a chart in a word doc. You’re going to track what you did wrong, and what you did right.
Obviously, track which topics were better and worse. Did you get more wrong in contracts than torts? But, go a step further, and track the subtopics. So many people will come up to me, frustrated that they aren’t doing well in a particular subject. But what PARTS of that subject are you struggling with? For contracts are you getting all of the damages questions wrong, but doing fine with formation? This matters for two reasons. First, it matters because it helps you decide where to spend your time. Don’t just think about spending your time with “contracts”, but focus it further. In addition, if you notice you are struggling with damages, don’t assume that you don’t know the law. Line up some wrong questions and see if you notice a pattern. Is it the way the question is being asked? Or are you struggling to pick the right answer out of 2?
That brings us to the next important step of tracking. WHY did you get the answer wrong? Don’t just assume it was the law. Could it be something else? Were you reading carefully? If not, mark that down as “RC” or reading comprehension. Did you miss the law being tested? Perhaps you feel confident that you know the rule against perpetuities, but you didn’t recognize that it was being tested in this question. Were you second guessing yourself? Did you have the right answer and change it? Did you miss an important fact?
The point is to look for patterns. Everyone assumes they don’t know the law, but you graduated from law school! No small feat! That means you know something, I promise. So, look for other patterns. For example, most of the time when I get multiple choice questions wrong it’s careful reading. I read quickly and miss important facts, or don’t pay close enough attention to the call of the question. But now that I know this about myself, I can watch for it and remedy it. I also tell students who find they second guess themselves frequently to do the math – what would your score have been if you had NEVER second guessed yourself? If your score would have increased, use that as motivation to NOT second guess yourself. The point is, knowing the patterns help, and will help you study more effectively.
Also, if the law is the reason you got it wrong, be specific. Is it that you didn’t remember the law? Or that you didn’t understand it? Your answer to this changes your review. If you just failed to remember an element or an exception, working on memory will help. But students often assume this is the fix to all things, when in fact, they don’t fully understand the law. If that’s the case, merely memorizing the law will not help you get the question right. To test this, use your outline. With the law in front of you, can you get it right? If the answer is no, it’s not memory, and you need to look elsewhere.
As you track, think of a takeaway per question. So, if I got 90 right on my practice test, that’s 110 opportunities to learn something new. Yes, I know, cheesey. But it works, I promise. Remember 58 points! So, if I can learn 110 new things, that’s an increase in your points for sure. Statistically, about 20-30 points. Your takeaway should be something that you can use on multiple questions. It can be a reminder that when a question asks you for the BEST defense, it doesn’t mean defendant will win. It can be putting a nuance or an exception on a flashcard. It can be the reason why one answer is better than another. For example, if a contracts question asks about breach of contract, an answer choice that talks about reliance or estoppel will be wrong, because that’s not a contract.
The point is to learn something from each question. I promise, it WILL work. Don’t just go back to your outlines and redo them, or make them prettier. Don’t just review law or re-watch videos. Dive into those questions and really learn.
A few last multiple choice notes. It’s important to practice using pencil and scantron (actually bubbling in answers) before the test, potentially multiple times. It’s also important to practice in timed conditions. Make the test conditions as test like as possible – limit bathroom breaks, don’t drink water, or eat. Set a timer. If you plan on using ear plugs, wear them.
If you are struggling with multiple choice in general, our very own Steven Foster has a CALI lesson for that! https://www.cali.org/lesson/18100
Finally, good luck, and remember practice makes perfect!
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Want to know about what this summer's bar takers are facing in trying to prepare for bar exams?
See the letter that was written by the Dean of Seattle University's School of Law to the Washington Supreme Court, in which Dean Clark speaks from the heart about what what this season's bar takers are encountering in trying to prepare for bar exams.
Note: This is the letter that coincided with the Washington Supreme Court's decision to recognize diploma licensure for admission to the practice of law:
With some states moving to online bar exams, four (4) academic support educators have teamed up with the ABA Journal to share top-notch tips for expertly preparing for success on online bar exams. Here's the link to read the expert suggestions from Prof. Goldie Pritchard (Michigan State), ABA author Sara Berman (AccessLex Institute), Prof. Courtney Lee (University of the Pacific - McGeorge), and Prof. Joe Regalia (UNLV): https://www.abajournal.com/academic-support-experts-offer-advice/.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
More advice on memory, and how to improve it! Last week I wrote a bit about improving memory for the bar. However, I want to dive a bit deeper into the topic.
I’m going to talk about three aspects of memory, that if used in your studying, can actually help you vastly improve what you are trying to memorize!
The forgetting curve says that we can predict when you will forget information, the spacing effect shows that if we study just before we would forget we can improve memory, and the testing effect tells us that testing ourselves improves memory. Using these three things together can really help! I’m going to particularly focus on the testing effect, as I think that’s something you can easily employ while you study.
The Forgetting Curve
It is almost universally accepted that memories decay over time. Researchers, over time, have discovered that we can predict when the memories will begin to decay. This is the forgetting curve. It was first discovered by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. He found that beginning just after a person learns information, their ability to remember the information, or recall, starts to decay. When he used nonsense syllables to test, it only took 20 minutes for the average test subject to have a less than 60% likelihood of recalling a syllable. An hour, it was less than 50%, and a day later, test subjects had lost nearly 70% of the information. A month later, learners retained only 20% of the material.
Ebbinghaus also discovered that while the initial rate of decline is fairly steep, the rate of decay declines with time. This means that memories that “survive” become less likely to be lost over time. This also means that the longer a student is able to retain a memory in the initial stage, the slower the information will decay over time.
The spacing effect says that if you properly space yours studying, this slows memory loss, or memory decay. Basically spacing out learning and review helps adjust the forgetting curve. If you allow longer periods of time in between review sessions, you’ll improve memory.
Now, the trouble with the spacing effect for things like the bar exam is that you really have too much learn, and not enough time! So, what can you do instead? You can still apply the concept, but use it with something called interleaving.
Interleaving is mixing subjects up as you study. So, normal, or “blocked” practice is the idea that you will study one concept, or topic, until you feel comfortable and then move on. Interleaving is the mixing of those subjects. This works particularly well with the bar exam. Interleaving ha been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of problem solving, and also leads to long term memory retention! Both things useful for the bar exam!
Interleaving forces the brain to continually retrieve information, since each practice prompt, is different from the last. This means your short term memory won’t help you. Interleaving also improves the brain’s ability to differentiate between concepts. Again, something you need for the bar exam! However, because interleaving involves retrieval practice, it feels more difficult than “blocked” practice. So, it’s going to feel worse. It’s going to feel like you aren’t getting concepts. So, it’s important to remember that this studying feels worse, but has better long term results.
So, each day study a variety of topics. Yes, there will be instances where it makes more sense to focus on one topic for a few hours. But if you are looking to increase your ability to recall the information, make sure you are switching in between torts and contracts, and then civ pro, and then property and so forth.
Something else you can do, which isn’t as effective, but still helpful, is to change how or what you are studying. Don’t spend one day on MBE, and another on essays. Or one day completely listening to videos, or reviewing outlines. Do 15 MBE questions, and then 1 essay, and then review some flaschards, and so forth.
Finally, my favorite, the testing effect. I have mentioned before that testing increases memory. I hear students stress over getting questions wrong during practice and review. I understand why they might get frustrated, but they are missing the important fact that by testing yourself, you are actually increasing the odds that you remember a law.
Basically, people achieve higher rates of recall of information already learned when they have tested themselves, versus just passively observing. So, this is why I encourage you to do more questions instead of reviewing your outline. There is a time and space for passive review, but your memory really gets better each time you “test”. In addition, testing without feedback will help with recall, but the effect is stronger when the testing is associated with meaningful feedback. So, what does this mean? Make sure to fully review each and every answer!
Remember, as you practice for the bar, don’t think of doing practice questions as assessment, or an indicator of how much you know. They can be both of those things, but start thinking of practice questions as a way to increase long term memory!
Studies show that self-testing even a single time can be as effective as reviewing information five times. Think about that – do you want to do one multiple choice question, or review your flash card five times? A study used a group of students who were given schedules to learn vocabulary words – the schedules were studying OR testing, and another group that was given a schedule to study AND test. A week later, the students who did the testing remembered 80% of the vocabulary words, versus 35% of non testing students. Now, I should point out that memorizing vocabulary is easier than memorizing legal concepts. In addition, the bar exam is asking you to APPLY those legal concepts, which you can’t do with memory alone. But that’s another reason why the testing effect is so useful!
So, your overall takeaway form all of this should be that practice DOES make perfect, and does help memory. In addition, breaks are still a good idea!
Note: To write this I relied heavily on the following:
n.d. Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. Accessed June 15, 2020. https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/.
Teninbaum, Gabriel H. 2017. "Spaced Repetition: A Method for Learning More Law in Less Time." Suffolk University Journal of High Technology Law.
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
I keep getting asked about memorization for the bar exam. Specifically, “How on earth am I supposed to memorize all of this?” and “Do you have any tips on memorization?”
So, here we go!
First of all, memorization is a bad word. I hate it. You want to remember, or recall, but not memorize. Why do I make a big deal about this? Well, for a couple reasons.
First, our brain is awful at memorization. Briefly, we have short term memory, long term memory, and memory retrieval. Short term memory can also be called working memory. It’s like a short picture that only lasts minutes. Next is long term memory, where memories are stored. And finally, memory retrieval, which is what you are concerned with for the bar exam. This is also the most difficult to achieve. So, your aim isn’t really to “memorize”, but to remember and recall.
Also, if you focus on memorization, instead of learning, you will get overwhelmed and stressed. So, reframe the idea in your mind for more success.
So, what CAN you do?
The power of Story and Emotion
Memory is often tied to stories, and strong emotions. This is why our autobiographical information is easy to recall. We might smell a certain food, and fondly remember a lovely family celebration we had as a child. These memories are typically vivid and strong. That’s because we process them as stories, not facts. If you are at a party, you don’t focus on individual details to remember, like the color of the walls, or the music playing, and consciously try to memorize it. You remember it because it’s happening to you, it’s a story. In addition, you are more likely to have a vivid memory of that party if you are feeling a strong emotion, usually intense happiness. (Carey, 2014) or (Tyng, Amin, Saad, & Malik, 2017)
So, how do you make this work for bar review? The act of studying doesn’t make for a good story, and you aren’t likely to feel very strong emotions. Maybe frustration, or stress, but those actual have a counterproductive impact on memory. So, it’s up to you to manufacture stories and happiness. Don’t just stare at outlines, or black letter law. Do more and more practice questions, which are stories. Or, even better, make up new hypotheticals of your own, the more ridiculous the better. If you’ve seen me lecture on any bar topic, you know I love crazy stories. I’m sure my students often roll their eyes, and wonder why I’m being ridiculous. But it’s to help with memory. The more absurd or ridiculous my examples, the more likely you are to remember the law.
Also, manufacture happiness, as much as you can. Studies have shown that test subjects that are placed in a room with simple smiling faces do better on memory. So, surround yourself with happy photos or pictures of your pets. Call one another on zoom and make up ridiculous hypotheticals until you are all laughing.
Speaking of stories, practice! Each MBE fact pattern, and each essay hypothetical, are stories! So, not only will practice make you better at tackling the essays or MBE questions, but practice gives your brain
stories to hold on to. The examples will help your memory! If you are trying to memorize the rule for parol evidence, doing 10 MBE questions, and really learning from each question, will serve you better than reviewing your outline over and over again.
In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole. The word chunking comes from a 1956 paper by George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information". This was because the brain can typically only remember 7-8 items at once.
So, what does chunking information mean for you? Well, let’s think of a grocery list.i
So, you have to buy the following:
You might want to chunk by meal. For example, Bread goes with turkey and cheese, and maybe tomato. Milk goes with Cereal, and maybe those go together with orange juice. As I’ve listed it, the items are random, so there is no way to remember them. Or there is, but it’s very difficult. But grouping by the meals will help your memory.
Alternatively, you can group by where the items are in the store. It is likely that the orange juice and milk are together, and the so are the bread and cereal, and the turkey and cheese.
So, the first step in chunking is to think about how you will need to use the information. This is one reasons I place practice so highly. When you go to memorize the law, you can’t memorize it in a vacuum. You have to think about how you will be using it, and then chunk from there.
Our brain learns more effectively if we space out information. So, this is more support for my theory that breaks are magic! Think of it like this, if you are building a brick wall, you need to let the motor in between the bricks dry before you stack too high. Similarly, you let one coat of paint dry before you put on another. You get the idea.
So, while studying for the bar, space out your studying. While it might feel like you don’t have time, you need the space to solidify your knowledge.
Take breaks! I wrote an entire blog about this last week. But your brain can only process and remember so much at once. Essentially, if you are reading 50 pages of outline, without a break, you are only likely to remember the first and last few pages. That’s a waste of time! Take frequent breaks, and break up what you do. The more active you are, the better.
Write an essay with open notes. Do a set of 5 MBE questions, and then review the applicable law. Mix up subjects. All of that will help with memory.
General Mental Health
Finally, I mentioned before that if you are frustrated or stressed, that doesn’t help with memory. That means you have to take care of yourself mentally while you are studying. This is going to vary for everyone, but make your mental health a priority. And if you feel yourself getting frustrated or overwhelmed, see above and take a break!
Finally, remember that your aim is to learn, not merely memorize! Also, this is just meant to be a primer, and is already too long for a blog post. There is so much more to be said about various memory techniques.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Suprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. New York: Random House.
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frong Psychology.
i I completely took this idea from Paula Manning at the 2015 AASE Conference in Chicago, and have been using it ever since!
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Dear Bar Takers,
I’d like to talk to you about breaks. I see you. You are overwhelmed, you are stressed. Some of you don’t even know if you have a seat. Let me stress – I see you.
In addition, I’d like to acknowledge that there are a million things making it hard to focus right now. I’ve been struggling to focus, and I’m not studying for an exam. The non bar exam world is causing a great deal of anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear. For some, more than others. It’s understandable to have those emotions, and not feel like you can 100% focus on the exam in front of you, especially if you aren’t even certain when you’ll take it. That’s all valid.
So, I want to talk about breaks, and why they are important. Taking frequent breaks helps improve your memory and focus, and helps reduce stress. Basically, research tells us that your brain can only focus for so long. It doesn’t matter how studious or determined you are, the human brain will not stay focused for 8 hours straight. In fact, if you aren’t taking practice exams to work on your stamina, I suggest taking a short break every hour or so. This is not my advice, this is advice from the neuroscientists.
Specifically, if we don’t take breaks, our brain gets fatigued. Once an hour, if not more, stand up and stretch. Or go for a brief walk. Switch your focus. All of these things help you improve memory and focus.
Also, taking breaks for mental health is ok. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you are getting frustrated with a topic of a question, take a break. Walk away and grab lunch. Take a walk outside. Just take a break from the frustration. If you push through, and continue to attempt to study while frustrated, your brain is not processing the information. It’s also ok to plan for entire mental health days. Your brain might need a longer break, and that’s ok too. If you are struggling to focus, maybe current events or family worries are weighing on your mind, step away. Do something for yourself and come back to studying later.
Finally, taking breaks for your physical health is ok and encouraged as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students get sick, maybe a bad cold for example, and they refuse to take a break. Not only are they not letting their body heal, which is not ideal for the long run, but your brain isn’t as focused as it could be, nor is it properly processing information. It’s far better to take a few days off, fully heal from the cold or other illness, and then dive back in feeling better.
So, in summary, while it is important to get in enough study hours – which are, let’s be honest, many – you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself. This includes breaks, and taking time for yourself. It’s also ok to be human, and give yourself permission to have unfocused days.
In addition, reminding yourself of your motivation is going to help improve your memory and learning. Write a litter to yourself, or a post it to put on your laptop. Why did you go to law school? Why do you want to take the bar exam? Yes, I know, you want to take the bar exam so you’re licensed. But why do you want to be licensed. Keeping your goals and motivation in sight, literally, will help you focus and learn.
I’d also like to stress the importance of a different kind of break. We learn best by doing different things. So, don’t just focus on video lectures. Or do an entire day of MBE questions. (Unless you are taking a practice test.) Mix it up. Spend 30 minutes writing an essay, and then review it. But then, do 15 MBE questions. Then watch parts of a video. The more you jump from one item to another, the better your brain is working, and the less likely you are to suffer from fatigue and lack of focus. The same goes for the subjects. Many students think they should spend a day, or even a week, on only one subject. But you actually stretch your brain, so to speak, by doing a mix of subjects.
Finally, despite my profession as bar professor type person, I can assure you that the bar exam is not the most important thing in the world. It really isn’t. Yes, you need to pass it to be licensed. And I want you to be licensed! But it doesn’t define you as a person, and if you fail, or have to take time off, that won’t even define you as an attorney. So, what I’m saying is that if this is not the right time for you to take the bar exam, that’s ok. There is no shame in that. You need to do what works best for you, and if that means delaying the exam because you are afraid for your health, you are focused on other things, too anxious or unfocused right now, or any number of reasons, the exam will still be there in 2021.
No matter what you choose, good luck! I look forward to seeing you as a colleague soon.
Thursday, May 28, 2020
That might be an overreach. But not by much. I only witnessed - at the most - 3 different flowers along the nearby hiking trail. Another hiker, who I met along the way, exploded with joy that she had spotted 44 different flowers along the same identical path, many of which were rarely seen during the short Colorado spring season. Same path; different eyes.
That experience left me wondering what else I am missing in this journey of life. Much, I suspect. Especially in these times with much of my face hidden behind a bandana. You see, I had a different purpose in mind on the hiking trail. And that resulted in a different pace and a much different outcome.
My fellow hiker's words hit home with respect to bar prep. Much of the colloquial wisdom is to practice testing yourself, constantly, as you prepare for your bar exam. Watch the clock, and my oh my, certainly don't take a timeout to research a bit of law when you are stumped. But, if in your bar prep you are driven by working the clock, you'll miss much. And what you miss is the opportunity to learn to improve critical reading and problem-solving skills because developing those skills takes lots of time and concentration - just like my fellow hiker spotting 44 flowers in beautiful bloom along the trail.
Let me share a secret. Rare is it that people run out of time on the bar exam. Oh it happens. But it's not because they didn't practice with the clock. Rather, it's often because the gambled with proven strategies to tackle their bar exams. They grabbed hold of the essays and then spent precious time looking for their favorites. Or, they hit the multiple-choice bubbling along the way while leaving many answer choices blank, with a long list of questions that they'd like to come back to, in the event that they have more time left at the end. On the bar exam, you don't have time to look at questions twice (or even more). Rather, just solve them one-at-a-time as they appear in the materials.
I know, you're saying, "Well, how am I going to get faster if I don't practice with the clock?" I'm not saying never practice with the clock, but the time to do so is much later, mostly only with mock bar exams, and mostly only in the last two weeks or so. In my experience, if you work on getting faster, you'll be super-fast but also often super-wrong because you haven't worked on seeing the patterns and observing the commas, the phrases, and the many nuances that are the heart of doing well on the bar exams.
Let me make it concrete. I have never seen a person fail the bar exam because they didn't know enough law or weren't really speedy enough. Rather, when people do not pass the bar exam, they tend to write about issues that weren't asked by the problems. That's because they worked mostly for speed through as many problems with goal of constantly testing themselves. "Am I passing yet? Is that good enough? I've got to get up that trail, so to speak, as fast as possible."
Instead, let go of the clock. Spend time in the midst of the problems. Question the questions. Puzzle over them. Ponder and probe the language, the phraseology, the paragraph breaks, and the format of the questions. In short, for the first six weeks of bar prep, practicing problems to learn with just an occasional check-in mock bar exam to see how you are doing. That way you'll be sure to see what's hidden in plain sight. And, that's the key to doing well on the bar exam. To locate and expose, what one of my recent students brilliantly called the "undertones" of the problems...that are really in plain sight...if only we take the time to learn to see.
(Scott Johns - University of Denver).
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
In a normal year, my students would all have begun their bar preparation yesterday, coasting on their post-graduation-ceremony momentum right into a seat in front of the first of many lecturers. But in New York, and more than a third of all U.S. jurisdictions (in which -- again, in a normal year -- more than half of all July examinees would be sitting for the exam), the date of the bar examination has been postponed for six weeks or more, leaving bar students in those jurisdictions with the gift they hate most of all: uncertainty.
What is to be done with all this extra time? Bar preparation companies cannot agree: some are simply administering their typical ten-week program, just starting it six weeks later than usual, while others have reworked their program schedule, starting it earlier and drawing it out over a longer period, but with shorter study days. Employers, many contending with their own virus-induced crises, have added variables to the new graduates' calculations, some allowing their new employees to start early and then take time off, others expecting hirees to adhere to their original early-August start dates, and still others unnervingly withdrawing their employment offers indefinitely. Even we bar support specialists can only make well-educated guesses about how to make use of six extra weeks. We have no data, no direct experience of how a delay like this will affect individual students or the testing cohort as a whole. How much more study can a student put in without burning out? Should the extra time be spread across all aspects of bar study, or should certain skills or subjects receive more attention? Will MBE scores increase overall for those who take the test in September? Decrease? Will the bell curve spread out? Will this hurt or help examinees?
Sensibly, 43 more days of prep time should be seen as a boon. In a normal year for bar study, isn't time the most precious resource of all? In my discussions with students, I have suggested they think of this extra time the way they might think of an unexpected financial windfall. You don't have to spend it all in one place. You might devote a large chunk of it to bar study -- that is, after all, the primary focus of the summer -- but how you specifically budget it depends on your own circumstances. An examinee facing financial pressures might choose to work for a few weeks, then begin studying a few weeks early. Someone eager to get started studying might begin this week, but set aside a week or two, at strategically placed spots on the calendar, to put study aside, connect with family and friends, or do whatever else helps them refill their gas tank. It's important not to let the time slip by unnoticed -- it would be bad to turn off the TV one night near the end of June and realize you had not done any bar study -- and that's why it's important to budget the time and actually create a schedule. And that, for some, is what seems to turn this temporal windfall into a vexation. In order to budget, you have to make choices.
No one wants their bar prep period to feel like playing endless rounds of "The Lady or the Tiger?" At every step: choose the right path, and you will be rewarded with contented knowledge and testing skills; choose the wrong path, and you will be mauled by a ravenous UBE with MPT fangs and MBE claws. In a normal year, examinees only have to be certain that the regimented bar study course they have chosen, which has worked for thousands of examinees before them, will continue to reliably work for them. This summer, though, because so much is unregimented, some examinees are anxious about being uncertain about so much more. Am I studying enough? Am I studying too much? Am I studying too early? Am I studying the right things, in the right way, for the right amount of time?
Two propositions can help people in such a tizzy of uncertainty. First, assure them that they are not feeling this uncertainty because of some character flaw that prevents them from making definitive choices. They are not losing their heads while all about them are keeping theirs. This is an inherently uncertain situation -- we can't even be assured the exam will actually be administered in September! -- and so there is no single "correct" choice. The best they can do is what they've been training to do for the past three years: exercise good judgment based on competent authority and relevant facts. As long as they are not just guessing, as long as they are talking to us and their mentors and their instructors and applying what they learn to what they already know about themselves and the task before them, they can at least make a good choice.
Second, help them subdue the perception that they are overwhelmed by uncertainty by reminding them of what is certain. The content and structure of the bar examination remains the same (well, except in Indiana), as do generally those of the reputable bar courses designed to prepare examinees for the test. They still have their law degrees, and the skill, intelligence, and diligence that helped them earn those degrees. They have a community of classmates, instructors, and mentors who they can rely on to share perspective and feedback on the decisions they do make. They have a certain task, they have certain abilities, and they have certain resources. In the face of uncertainty, those are best certainties to have.
Sunday, May 17, 2020
For those taking the bar at the end of July, bar prep starts Monday morning! The Bar Exam is a tough test. Even if your bar prep schedule starts later in the week, I suggest starting prep today to get ahead of the MBE. However, don’t forget this is a marathon not a sprint. Pace yourself so you keep your energy up throughout bar prep.
Everyone will start doing MBE questions early. Here are a few tips:
- Practice using the method you learned in law school or that is being taught in your prep course. Follow the method on every question. You can't implement the answering method at the end. You need to practice it regularly.
- Avoid NCBE tricks by answering the question before you ever read the answer choices. This is key to not being distracted.
- While doing questions on your own, complete 17 questions in 30 minutes. Make sure to time yourself. When you complete the questions, grade them. For all the questions you answered incorrectly, write out the rule in a notebook.
Remember, you graduated law school. Earning a J.D. is an amazing accomplishment. You have the ability to pass the bar exam. Get into a good routine to succeed.
Monday, May 11, 2020
In response to the mounting uncertainty about the administration of the July 2020 bar exam, Indiana has moved its exam online.
By order of the Indiana Supreme Court published May 7, 2020, Indiana will offer a one-day online exam in late July. According to law.com “that makes Indiana the first jurisdiction to commit to an online July exam, and the first to say it is creating its own version of the licensing test.” Indiana was one of the last states to adopt the Multistate Bar Exam, and had, for years, given a purely “state-made” exam. Today, the Indiana exam includes multistate content and state specific essays, so the bar examiners likely have an arsenal of potential test content. Other states, like California and Massachusetts, have made nods towards an online exam, but have not publicly defined what their exam would look like or when it would be administered. Both California and Massachusetts have postponed their July exam until September.
Indiana may soon have company. The Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court filed a petition recommending a temporary modification of its July 2020 bar exam to an online format. The petition is based on a recommendation from the Nevada Board of Law Examiners (BLE). The Nevada BLE proposed to administer a two-day, fully online, exam consisting of eight essays and one Nevada performance test. The Nevada proposal excludes multiple-choice questions. If accepted, Nevada will join California and Pennsylvania in administering its own performance test. The Nevada proposal is open for public comment. Anyone wishing to support (or oppose) the proposal should email the Clerk of the Nevada Supreme Court. Like Indiana, Nevada uses both multistate content and administers a state law essay exam.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added new layers of stress to the already hectic workloads of the academic support community. ASPers are affected by the pandemic in ways that our doctrinal colleagues are not. Traditionally, we are the ones from whom students seek counsel and clarity about the bar exam and how to prepare for it. Our ability to respond to those questions has been upended by proposed delays and the looming threat that a face-to-face exam cannot be administered in either July or September. All we know now is that we really don't know what will happen or how our students should best prepare. Added to the worry about whether there can be a bar exam at all, is how our students will fare on the exam and what our pass rates will look like.
The Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) called for suspension of ABA Standard 316 mandating that law schools maintain a 75% bar passage rate to remain in compliance. We can reasonably anticipate that bar pass rates will be lower in 2020 than in recent prior years. Students are under extreme stress dealing with pandemic related adjustments, fear of contracting the virus, and fear of spreading it to loved ones. Summer bar takers lack of access to law schools, public libraries, and quiet coffee shops for bar study, because they are not open to the public. Some may be battling illness themselves. Moreover, the administration of three separate exams with comparative and wholistic grading will also likely skew the exam outcomes and lead to a higher number of bar failures than would have occurred had all candidates taken the exam in the same administration. The Bar Advocacy Committee supports the SALT position and will present a letter to the Executive Board of the Association of Academic Support Educators (AASE) for signature, delivery, and public posting.
In the past, New York has been the state to follow, in terms of bar exam policy and development. Not so, anymore, as the limited seating debacle has cast a cloud of embarrassment and incompetence over the empire state. Who knew that we would see such progressive and compassionate bar policy leadership coming from Utah, Indiana, and now, hopefully, Nevada! It just goes to show that good ideas aren’t tied to population or politics—good ideas stem from compassionate effective leadership. And there is still room for more leaders with regard to the July 2020 exam.
Sunday, May 10, 2020
First, I want to Congratulate all law students for finishing this semester. I know some still have finals this week, but you all endured a complete change in educational environment. You worked hard through the disruption, and your resiliency will pay off preparing for the bar exam and the practice of law. I pray that you all stayed healthy and safe.
For 3Ls, you are moving from difficult end of the semester to even more difficult bar prep. Many of you will be worried and overwhelmed. Those feelings are understandable in a normal year. Some of you must wait to take the exam, while others will still take it at the end of July. The feelings and planning will cause some people to overlook the small details. I want to reiterate a common piece of advice that may be even more important this year. Practice tests should simulate exam conditions.
The advice seems obvious, but this year is different. I tell students to set a timer or put a clock on the wall similar to the bar exam. The numbers counting down cause adrenaline spikes, and I want students to feel that while practicing. This year, the exam may have other precautions. Some states will social distance with people spread far apart. That will be hard to simulate with schools closed, so if you can, have loved ones, kids, or people within the house sit 8 feet away. They can be unintentionally fidgety for the duration of the test. Make them take a silly test of their own. Some states may require masks during the exam. You don't want the first time taking a test with a mask on to be the day of the bar exam. Some masks are comfortable for the grocery store, but remember, you will be wearing the mask for 8-10 hours 2 days in a row. The elastic band mask may not be comfortable for that long. You may want a mask that ties or one of the plastic S hooks for masks. I suggest wearing one while answering practice questions. At first, you will be annoyed. After a while, it won't bother you. This is similar to don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong. Keep wearing the mask until you don't really know it is there.
This has been difficult. I hope all of your conditions permit quality studying for the bar. Good luck to all bar takers in both July and September.
Thursday, May 7, 2020
I once had a teacher tell me to never read good books. Never ever. And why not?
Because if I spent my time reading good books (or doing good things), then I wouldn't have time left to read the really great books (or do the really great things of life).
That's a lesson that has never left my side.
In bar prep, I'm convinced that too many are trying to do too much, and, in the process of doing good tasks, they aren't doing the great things that are really important for success on the bar exam. Let me be frank. You don't have time in bar prep to do good things. But, you have plenty of time to do the really great things, the things that produce fruitful learning.
With that in mind, here's a few tips:
- Do less reading and more pondering the law, how it works or doesn't, and what it means to you as a person.
- Do less note-taking and more puzzling through problems to learn the law.
- Do less testing and more practicing, feeling free to work problems over slowly, reading them out loud if you'd like, as you develop confidence and competence in your own voice as an expert problem-solver.
That's just a few suggestions.
But, rather than hear it from me, a teacher, I thought I'd share the wisdom of a recent successful bar-taker in that person's own words. After all, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words (but the wise words from the heart & mind of a recent bar taker -- who wants to share with YOU what she/he learned through re-taking the bar exam -- is worth a priceless fortune).
Advice for First-Time Bar Takers:
- Practice way more than you think! If you are wondering whether you should watch a lecture or do a practice question, do the practice question.
- Let go of memorizing everything. It is impossible. Learn what your weak areas are and spend more time with those subjects.
- You will feel like you know nothing until approximately the last week of bar prep. Somehow, magically, it does come together. I promise.
- Do all the bar prep practice tests.
- Think really hard about who you want to study with. This is not the time to do something different from how you handled law school.
- Come up with a plan and stick to it. The bar prep calendar is really helpful for this. Decide how many practice questions you want to do everyday and do it. But if you are starting to burn out, be OK with taking breaks. It's a marathon!
Advice for Fresh Start Re-Takers:
- First, I am so sorry that you have been dealt this card. There is no question that it hurts. Take care of yourself and do things that make you happy.
- As you begin planning your next round of bar prep, make sure to work with the law school to identify the weak aspects of your exam answers. This will help define ways you can “work smarter” instead of “work harder.”
- Also work with the law school to identify new ways to study. It might be changing up your study tool or how you review your answers. For me, studying ALONE the second round vastly improved my scores. I think studying alone boosted my confidence because it required me to look up answers to my own mistakes. I also stopped comparing myself to friends.
- Ditch the bar prep lectures. Use that time to practice WAY MORE MBE and MEE practice questions. I probably tripled the amount of practice questions I did during my second round of bar prep.
- Log your progress. I was way more intentional about compiling lists of rules I kept missing on MBE questions. This helped me to keep track of weak areas so I could spend more time learning the law in specific subjects.
- Spend timing thinking about any testing anxiety you might have. Adding mindfulness meditations to my study plan helped a ton!
That brings me back to the start of this little essay. How do you know what are the really great books to read (or the great things to do)? That's were wisdom comes in. Reach out to a person you trust, on your faculty or staff or from a colleague or mentor who knows you as a person from head to toe. The advice that I've shared in this blog is from such a person, who, although he/she doesn't know you, knows you, because she/he has cared enough to share with you the lessons learned through the process. So, you have a friend who is rooting for you (and that includes me too!).
Monday, May 4, 2020
Imbroglio: A complicated situation; a sequence of events so absurd, complicated, and uncommon as to be unbelievable.
Merriam-Webster might as well add a footnote to the July 2020 bar exam administration as an example of the term “imbroglio.” No other term can accurately describe the debacle that surrounds the upcoming bar exam. Blog, essays, and the exasperated cries of bar candidates—summed up in one word. One word with an applicability of meaning that has become self-evident.
A complicated situation – Our nation has become embattled by a contagion that shows no sign of relenting. Across the country, stay at home orders are in place to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus. In states with large numbers of bar takers, there is no safe way to administer the bar exam in the traditional format. Yet, bar examiners and the American Bar Association insist on a bar exam as screening tool for entry into the practice of law.
A sequence of events so absurd – Some states postponed the July exam. Some states canceled it altogether. Some states propose to offer a bar exam in early September; others in late September; others have postponed the exam “indefinitely.” No matter what the states propose, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”) will let us know on May 5, 2020 whether there will be any multistate or uniform exams released in July. States that have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (“UBE”) are powerless to administer any exam in July if the NCBE won’t provide the questions, because UBE states don’t write their own bar exams anymore.
Complicated – Epidemiologists tell us that the virus comes in waves. Even with proposed and announced dates for the bar exam, COVID-19 may make it impossible or unwise to administer it in the late summer or early fall. But bar takers cannot afford to wait until there is certainty to begin studying. Many will begin bar study this month, for an exam that may or may not take place. They will study in places that are not libraries or law schools, because those places are closed.
Uncommon – COVID-19 presents an unprecedented situation that will impact the flow of new attorneys into the profession at a time when there will be an increased need for legal services. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, like emergency diploma privilege. Utah adopted a sensible emergency diploma privilege, but the ABA and the NCBE discourage other states from following suit.
Unbelievable – Just when we thought things could not possibly get any worse, the New York Board of Law Examiners announced that it may not have enough room to allow bar applicants from out of state law schools to sit for the exam that it hopes to administer on September 30 – October 1. In that same announcement, and with hold-my-beer momentum, the New York bar officials strongly encouraged candidates “to consider sitting for the UBE in other jurisdictions.” That this advice was given without regard for the COVID precautions of other states, and at a time when very few other states were still accepting applications, defies comprehension.
I won’t ask, “what could happen next?”
 ABA STANDING COMMITEEE ON BAR ACTIVITIES AND SERVICES LAW STUDENT DIVISION RESOLUTION [sic] (04/07/020) “the Resolution does not . . . modify or limit the historic and longstanding policy of the ABA supporting the use of a bar examination as an important criterion for admission to the bar.”
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
- Take a minute, it’s ok to be upset.
First and foremost, this does not define you. Trust me, we have all heard stories of prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians that have failed the bar, sometimes multiple times. I could make you a list of all of the successful lawyers that were unsuccessful on the bar exam their first time. But I won’t, because failing the bar does not define them. If you try to make a list, you won’t find “failed the bar” on Wikipedia pages, or official biographies, or resumes. It’s not because it’s some secret shame, but because no one cares. In 5-10 years, no one will care how many times it took you to pass the bar. In fact, they won’t care in 6 months or a year. It seems like a defining moment right now, but it isn’t. Your defining moments come from the way you treat clients, the way you treat colleagues, and what you choose to do with your license once you have it.
So, take a few days to be upset, it’s ok. But then dust yourself off, and start looking towards the next bar. Also, remember that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success. Every successful lawyer has failed – on the bar, at trial, in a negotiation, not getting a job. Every failed politician has lost a race. Every failed Olympian has lost a game or a match. That failure is a normal way to achieves success in the future. However, for that to be true, you have to learn from failure.
- Meet with Someone.
Reach out to your school's academic support or bar professionals. We want to meet with you, and we won’t judge. We will provide a sympathetic shoulder, and we will talk out a plan. Trust me when I say that we WANT to hear from you.
- Request your essays back, if you can.
Many states allow you to request, or view, your essays.
Once you have your essays, I want you to do a couple things. Review your answers: now that you are removed from the day of writing, what do you notice? Then, if possible, compare them to the sample answers. See if you can pick out patterns. Don’t just focus on the conclusions, or the issues spotted. Did the sample answers use more facts? Or have a more in depth analysis? Be honest with yourself. Also, if you have a varied set of scores (one essay is a 1, while another is a 5) compare the 2. What is the difference? Don’t just shrug it off as you know one subject better. Pay attention to the writing in both.
In addition, here is a CALI lesson (you should still have access) on assessing your own work. It may seem geared towards law students, but it can help you assess your essays: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18101
- Analyze your score
How close or far away are you from passing? Did you do better on a certain subject? Is your written score considerably better than your MBE score? This is an excellent place to start. Some things to keep in mind:
- If your essay score is higher than your MBE, it may be tempting to place most of your energy into MBE practice, and forget about essays. This will only result in your score “swapping.” So, while it is good to note that you might need more work on the MBE, don’t forget that you aren’t carrying the score wit you so you still need to practice essays. The reverse is true if you did better on MBE than the essays.
- Perhaps you did really well on the torts MBE, but your lowest score was civil procedure. Again, do not just focus on civil procedure, and forget other subjects. Your scores will just swap places, and not improve overall.
- You might be only 2 points away from passing. Great! However, your score is still starting from scratch. Meaning, in one sense, you only need 2 more points, but that’s not how the bar works, obviously. You have to still work to get the points you already got AGAIN, and it is likely you forgot things, and are out of practice.
- Think about external things while you were studying
Did something unrelated to the bar impact your studying? Perhaps a health issue, physical or mental? Perhaps a family emergency, or ongoing family issues?
Have you suffered from anxiety in general or related to exams? If you do, are you being treated for the anxiety?
These things can and will impact your studying. Not matter how much time and effort you put in, if you are not physically and mentally healthy, you won’t process the information correctly.
Not to mention, if there is something in your life that is distracting you, that will also impact how you process information.
If you were entitled to accommodations in law school, did you use them on the bar exam? If not, make sure you apply for them this time around. If you were denied accommodations, still try again. They likely need more recent testing, or paperwork.
- Think about study habits
The most important thing you can do is practice. Many bar students get caught up in trying to memorize every sing law, or master every subject. While this is admirable, and takes quite a bit of time and effort. However, mastering the bar is a SKILL. You need to practice. When I work with repeat takers, I often find that they knew the law, and they studied hard, but didn’t practice enough essays or enough timed MBE.
This matters for a few reasons. One is timing. You can know all the law in the world, but if you can’t write an essay in 30 minutes, you will struggle to get the scores you need. Similarly, doing 100 MBE questions in 3 hours is not easy, even if you DO know the law. You need to practice the timing, and practice for the stamina.
Secondly, the skill being tested on the bar is applying the law to the unique set of facts. Yes, you need to know the law to do this, but knowing the law is not enough. You need to practice the application.
This means that writing essays, fully out, not just passively reading sample answers or issue spotting, is key. It has to be a priority in studying.
In fact, all of your studying should be active. Don’t focus on rewriting, or reviewing, outline after outline. Again, yes, you need to know the law, but you are also more likely to remember the law if you apply it – in MBE questions, writing essays, and so forth.
- Change it up!
Different study habits work for different people. If you studied at home and found that you were easily distracted, find a space at the library or nearby coffee shop to study. If you did go the library/school/coffee shop every day, maybe try studying at home.
Finally, I am here for you. I am a resource, and look forward to helping you!
- CALI Lessons on improving multiple choice:
- CALI Lessons on improving memory: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18157
- CALI Lesson on issue spotting: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18169
- CALI Lesson on improving analysis: https://www.cali.org/lesson/18171
- Adaptibar: https://www.adaptibar.com/ (See Prof. Hale for possible discounts, or no cost options)
- Strategies and Tactics for the MBE: https://www.amazon.com/Strategies-Tactics-MBE-Bar-Review/dp/1543805728/ref=sr_1_1?gclid=CjwKCAiA-vLyBRBWEiwAzOkGVArOgksVIJF-Ay7c5WMFApM2Dic8N2-DFZSxm95A23E0b-sHif7OthoCQmQQAvD_BwE&hvadid=241627170717&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9021760&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=7692014818673609309&hvtargid=aud-840076997981%3Akwd-555060935&hydadcr=22595_10356262&keywords=strategies+and+tactics+for+the+mbe&qid=1583177627&sr=8-1
Once again, remember that this doesn't define you. This is one step in the process, and that's it.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Has there ever been a U.S. law school class subject to more stress and uncertainty than the class of 2020? Okay, not every student across the country has suffered equally, but here in New York our students were told all of their classes would abruptly be online, that they would not get to see their classmates for the rest of the year, that their bar examination would be postponed indefinitely, that a bizarrely deadly disease racing across the state, that their bar examination would be rescheduled for September but that there was no guarantee there would be space for them to take it, that the economy was collapsing and some of the jobs they were counting on could disappear, and that they would probably get to take the exam in September if there were an exam in September but nobody can really tell them how it's going to work yet anyway. All of this in less than six weeks. Plus now they have to do all of their classes and meetings via Zoom, which fosters so much lack of eye contact and awkward silence it reminds me of a sixth-grade dance. No wonder our soon-to-be graduates are so weary.
Like a lot of us, I am weary, too, trying to be there for my 3L students, putting new resources in place, thinking ahead about how to contend with the changes to the bar exam. But when things slow down (later and later in the evening) and I have a moment to stop thinking about my bar prep class and the latest news from the Board of Law Examiners, that's when I think about next year, when maybe things will be "back to normal". And that's when I get really anxious.
Our current 3L students are stressed, but also super motivated. They were 92% of the way through law school when things went whack, and they are not about to let that last 8% stand in their way. Everyone with an interest in this summer's bar exam -- law schools, the state, employers -- wants to see these students get through the disruption and get into the workplace, and if that means relaxing some rules or changing some procedures well then so be it. Sure, it's going to be an unusual summer, but there's a potential for six additional weeks of prep time for the bar exam. It's possible that some students will be better prepared for the test. It's my job not to assume that, but it could happen.
The students I actually worry about -- when I can, because our imminent graduates require so much immediate attention -- are the current 2Ls. Many of them have seen their summer job or internship plans interrupted, and I know our careers services office is hearing from them about those issues. But I am barely hearing from them at all about academic concerns, and my attempts at general outreach have generated very little response. I do not doubt that most 2L students have simply made a successful transition to online classes -- a transition made easier in many schools by a move to mandatory pass/fail grading and by a general and humane understanding that this change has been fast and novel for all of us and that, considering the background stresses of illness, isolation, and finances, it is appropriate to give students a little slack.
But I also fear that there is a portion of the class of 2021 that is not handling the transition as well. There could be some -- hopefully a small number -- directly affected by this crisis, dealing with their own illness or that of a loved one, or with financial difficulties, any of which could in turn affect their performance in school. Others might just not be doing as well academically as they would be in a live classroom, with the opportunity to study with classmates every week. Those students just might not be getting everything they otherwise might have from their classes, even though they feel like they are making the same effort. And then there are sometimes a few students whose inclination is to do less work, when possible, and this is in many ways a situation in which that is possible.
All of these subsets of 2L students might learn, understand, and be able to correctly apply less of what they are learning in their spring classes now than they would have if the world had not shifted so radically. And we might not know it now, because it is so hard to make contact with them under these new conditions. What's worse, without thinking ahead about this, we may not even find out who these students are and where they have developed gaps (Evidence? Criminal Procedure? Wills and Trusts?) until the start of next year's spring semester, if they just get "Passes" in all their classes this semester. And by that time, I am sure we are all hoping, things will be "back to normal" -- classes back in the building, bar exam scheduled for ten weeks after graduation, employers expecting practice-ready students on August 1. They won't be the beneficiaries of relaxed procedures or of extra study time, or of any other kind of leeway.
So this is what I think about when I can. How can I reach people who seem perfectly comfortable not being reached at this moment? How can I, sooner rather than later, identify and help these students who might otherwise not manifest the effects of the spring of discontent until the glorious summer of 2021?
I think the fall of 2020 is going to be incredibly consequential to those students, and I think we need to be prepared for it.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
The last few weeks have been extraordinary in dizzying ways. A massive and abrupt shift to online teaching; a disruptive delay in administration of the bar examination; increased academic, professional, and/or personal responsibilities; fears for one's health or the health of loved ones; actual physical illness; loss of income; loss of planned employment or experiential opportunities; long-term economic uncertainty; social isolation and loneliness -- any one of these would be distractingly stressful to a student or teacher under ordinary circumstances, and many of us and our students are facing most of them simultaneously.
The saving grace has been the correspondingly extraordinary response -- demonstrations of grit, resourcefulness, generosity, and positivity -- that the situation has generated. Administrators and technicians working 16-hour days to keep classes and resources flowing. Educators implementing and sharing creative solutions to the problems of distance learning, and making special efforts to keep students engaged. Students accepting their changed circumstances with remarkable flexibility, increased effort, and gracious understanding. And, as a backdrop, millions of people, throughout the country and the world, working, sharing, and cooperating towards common goals.
But these last few weeks are really the first few weeks. To many they seem much longer already, but everyone -- law schools included -- faces an even more extended period of disruption and deprivation. That burst of energy and goodwill with which our students faced the initial transformation will have its limits. Even our own stockpiles of buoyancy and resilience are going to be threatened.
That is normal. It is really a form of culture shock, and as anyone who has experienced culture shock can tell you, there will be a cycle of highs and lows until we fully acclimate to our new world. We can all deal with these, one way or another, but the best way is with open eyes and thoughtful consideration. Expect at some point to feel exhaustion and discouragement in ourselves, and to recognize them in our students and colleagues.
Plan for it if you can -- be thinking ahead about when (soon!) you can take some time for yourself, and about how you can encourage your students to do the same. Classes will be over in a few weeks, exams a few weeks after that; a little downtime right about now, and then after exams are over, can help to stretch everyone's reserves.
Reaching out to others for support -- sharing or trading tasks, enjoying a little social time (like a virtual happy hour), or even just mutual commiseration about how tough it has been -- should be a little more manageable at this point, now that we have all familiarized ourselves with our new schedules, our formerly unfamiliar conferencing tools, and the proper guidelines for face-to-face-but-still-six-feet-away interactions.
And, most importantly, don't let the next plunge in spirits catch anyone by surprise. Let your students know -- gently, not with a sense of foreboding -- that it would be natural to start feeling low at some point, and that the feeling will not be permanent, and that you can be there for them while it lasts. Help them to focus on the tasks that will help them not only get through the next several months, but also accomplish things they will be proud to talk about years later. And remember that you will not be immune, and that taking care of yourself is another way to help you take care of your students.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
I sometimes wonder which is a bigger issue when it comes to attorney malpractice. Ethical problems or doctrinal issues?
As best I can tell, there are few disciplinary actions based on the elements of a negligence claim or the standard for a preliminary injunction or the elements of a common law marriage. Rather, it seems like most disciplinary actions are based on failing to abide by the rules of professional conduct, often due to time-management issues or substance abuse problems or client fund issues, etc. - all significant concerns that greatly impact the public good. Nevertheless, most states test ethical rules by using a one-day computer-based multiple-choice test -- the MPRE.
Consequently, if a multiple-choice exam suffices to assess ethical rules, why not use a mutiple-choice exam for assessing substantive doctrinal law too, especially in light of the concerns about administering a bar exam this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
So here goes a possible syllogism:
The issue is whether bar examiners ought to consider using a one-day computer-based multiple-choice exam to assess doctrinal legal knowledge and application.
Like situations can be treated alike.
Here, with respect to the bar exam, assessing knowledge about ethical rules for professional competency, which is assessed by most states using a one-day online multiple-choice exam, involves the same sorts of problem-solving analytical skills as assessing knowledge about substantive doctrinal laws.
Therefore, bar regulators ought to consider using a one-day online multiple-choice MBE exam, delivered similar to the computer-based MPRE, to substitute for the current two-day in-person exam.
If my syllogism holds true, then there's no logical reason why states should delay the bar exam this summer because bar examiners can instead reformat the exam as a multiple-choice MBE exam to determine knowledge and application of substantive doctrinal law.
And, there's more great news. There's no reason why bar examiners can't permit law students to take the MBE prior to graduation just like the MPRE...so that law graduates are really practice-ready...at graduation. Wouldn't that be super!
And, as illustrated by the movement of the MPRE to an online testing format, bar examiners also have the expertise to convert the MBE from a paper & pencil exam to a computer-based exam.
Finally, although there are exam security issues raised with using online testing, particularly because online testing for this summer would most likely have to take place under "shelter in place conditions," those concerns can be mitigated by bar examiners as regulators make character and fitness decisions.
In short, it's time to move to online multiple-choice testing.
In my opinion, failing to act now, in the midst of this ongoing crisis, not only harms bar applicants because of the delays that might befall them due to COVID-19, but also fails to protect the public, who disparately need (and will need) legal expertise, now more than ever, as the U.S navigates through this world-wide crisis. Just food for thought!
P.S. Note: The biggest issue with respect to any licensure exam, it seems to me, is whether it actually assess what it purports to assess, minimal competency to practice law. As best I can tell, most states evaluate written exam answers - not for minimum competency - but rather based on a process of rank-ordering exam answers. And, with respect to multiple-choice exams, I suspect that much of the success lies not so much with assessing competency but with developing test-taking skills and the knowledge of U.S. legal culture. But, there seems no inclination to abandon the bar exam regiment. Hence, I suggest retooling the bar exam as a one-day online comptuter-tested MBE exam available for law students to take after their first-year of legal studies.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
Every once in awhile I have a "aha" moment. I stumbled into this one, and I'm not the same because of it.
As background, a student reached after having failed the MPRE on multiple tries despite having watched commercial bar review lectures, creating personal study tools, and working lots and lots of practice questions.
I was so impressed with the student's preparatory efforts. The student had created spectacular blackletter study tools. The student knew the law backwards and forwards and could retrieve rules in a flash. And yet, the student missed question after question despite lots of practice in working through and analyzing problems.
That's when it came to me.
My student had learned the law - cold - but was still missing questions because the student had not learned the culture of how the law was tested. Based on my student's prior experiences as an attorney, I asked how my student had learned to solve legal problems as an attorney. My student explained that the key was in learning the culture of how the law applied to client problems.
Likewise, I suggested that perhaps the key to success on the MPRE lies in learning the legal culture of the MPRE. With this thought in mind, my student focused preparation efforts anew on learning MPRE culture rather than MPRE law. And guess what? The student passed the MPRE with flying colors!
Based on this admittedly anecdotal experience, my sense is that many students do not pass the MPRE because they focus on learning the wrong thing. They try to learn the law without learning the socio-legal context of how the law applies - the culture of the law.
With this thought in mind, I now suggest to students that they work through practice problems as armchair legal sociologists to learn the culture of what is being tested. In short, in my opinion, the MPRE doesn't really test the law as much as it tests the legal culture of the law. (Scott Johns).
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
For the first time in eleven years, the February bar examination starts on Mardi Gras. For those celebrating the first day of Carnival, today will be a joyous and hopeful celebration, followed tomorrow by a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial; for those taking the bar exam, today marks the culmination of a weeks-long period of disciplined self-denial, to be followed tomorrow by a joyous and hopeful celebration. To both krewes I say: Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Meanwhile, those of us in Academic Support engaged in less elevated pursuits are already making efforts and plans to help the next set of examinees get ready for the July administration of the bar examination. As we communicate with our current 3L students to lay the foundation for their prep work over the summer, it is not a bad idea to consider Shrove Tuesday and some of the value of celebration and ceremony in general. Holidays like Mardi Gras and festivities like weddings are not merely commemorations of momentous occasions, nor excuses for fun and excess. They also serve as cultural and psychological turning points, signaling for participants the seriousness of the transition they are about to make. (“Carnival” is, after all, derived from a Latin phrase for “remove meat” or “farewell to meat” – we associate the term with fun, but it really means preparing to sacrifice.) The grandiosity and tradition of such celebrations convey weighty significance, and their communal nature impress upon participants that they have both support from and responsibility towards a society – that they are not just taking this on alone. When effective, these implications encourage celebrants to take on their new situation immediately and wholeheartedly, and the (often subconscious) gravity impressed upon them by the jubilee can give them the perseverance not to abandon it when times are hard. Wedding ceremonies help couples take the hard work of being married seriously, even when they want to walk away. Mardi Gras helps observants stick to their resolutions of Lenten sacrifice, even when led into temptation.
Graduation is already a significant celebration in the minds of our law students, and we can use the weight and jubilation already associated with it to the advantage of our future bar examinees. A little additional messaging, suggesting that commencement is not just the start of their professional lives but also a milestone that marks the transition to a new mode of intensity, can help students see graduation day (even if only subconsciously) as a ceremony that signals their immediate and wholehearted commitment to bar study, and one that lends them additional perseverance throughout the months of May, June, and July. Be overt, be enthusiastic, and remind them that they will celebrating and then sacrificing together. There is power in a party, and we can put it to use.