Seven Hurdles To Bar Exam Success (and how to overcome them)

I am going to let you in on a little secret: The bar exam isn’t fair.

That’s right. Despite what you may have been led to believe, the bar exam is not a fair test of your ability to practice law. If it were, then you would expect that a higher percentage of graduates from accredited law schools would pass the bar exam each time. Instead the exam is designed to intentionally weed out a certain percentage of law school graduates and keep them out of the legal profession.

That does not mean that you cannot beat the system. However, in order to do so, you need to become aware of the specific reasons why the bar exam is not a fair test of your ability to practice law and the ways that you can avoid these traps:

Hurdle #1: There is never enough time to prepare.
The typical bar review course starts just after graduation and ends just a few weeks before the bar exam. For most students, this is all of the time that they have to prepare for the bar exam. Even if you did nothing else but study during these two months, you would still feel as though you did not have enough time to prepare. The truth is that no matter how long you study, you will always be left feeling like you could have done more. That’s because the amount of information you must master is more than anyone could possibly absorb in that short amount of time; which leads to our next hurdle . . .

Hurdle #2: There is too much material to master thoroughly.
While you are required to master a wide range of legal knowledge for the bar exam, the truth is that you cannot possibly know everything. Fortunately, the percentage of correct answers needed to pass allows for a reasonable number of wrong answers. Your goal is not to completely master any of the bar exam subjects but rather to demonstrate a working knowledge about a broad range of issues. Rather than spending too much time preparing for issues that are unlikely to appear on the exam, your best strategy is focus your efforts on the issues most likely to appear, such as the big picture issues and the issues tested most frequently.

Hurdle #3: Issues are randomly tested – it’s the luck of the draw.
There is a randomness to the whole bar exam process, as the issues tested change from exam to exam. Since you cannot possibly know everything, you are hoping that the issues tested on your particular exam coincide with the things you know. If you make sure that you know at least a little bit about every issue in your bar review materials, then it is less likely that you will find yourself with nothing to say in response to a fact pattern. Therefore, instead of worrying about what you don’t know, show the graders what you do know and you may still come away with enough points to pass, which is what it’s all about.

Hurdle #4: Bar exam grading is subjective, not objective.
When I review essay answers with students after the bar exam, I am always surprised by the wide range of scores received. If graders were adhering to a strict set of guidelines, you would expect to see more consistent scoring. However, what I find in reality is that some bar exam graders appear to be sticklers for organization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, handwriting, etc. and deduct points for such stylistic errors, whereas others will not. Since the scores do not always reflect the knowledge the applicant has demonstrated, it is clear that there is a subjective element to the grading process. The best way to avoid losing points on an essay where you knew the law is to practice writing essay answers that are easy to understand and pleasing to the grader. Make sure that your writing style is not getting in the way of what you are trying to say.

Hurdle #5: Bar exam tests things you never learned in law school.
Even if you took all of the subjects tested on your bar exam, there would still be specific issues on the bar exam that you never learned about in law school. In recent years, the bar examiners have tested on issues that tend not to be covered in detail in a typical law school course. Chances are that you will encounter some unfamiliar issues on the bar exam. The good news is that your bar review course is going to be familiar with these trends and will cover these issues.

Hurdle #6: MPT takes longer than 90 minutes to complete.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPT) is an open universe test where you are given not only the facts but also the correct law to apply. If you had unlimited time to complete the tasks, it would be too easy. Instead the bar examiners give you a strict time limit of 90 minutes per question in order to determine whether you can read, analyze, and write under pressure. Too many students fail to prepare for the MPT thinking that the skills they have acquired while clerking for a law firm or from legal writing classes in law school are the skills that will carry them through the MPT. While the bar examiners claim that the MPT tests your ability to practice law, the truth is that the MPT only tests one skill: your ability to take the MPT. The only way to improve your MPT performance is to simply practice, practice, practice. The more you practice the MPT under timed conditions, the better you will be at taking the MPT under the 90 minutes. It’s not simply about whether or not you can answer the MPT questions. Rather it is about whether you can complete them within the 90 minutes allotted.

Hurdle #7: There are no correct answers on the MBE
Unlike other multiple choice exams you have taken in the past, the multiple choice test on the bar exam does not ask you to merely identify the “correct” answer. Instead you are asked to select the “best” answer choice from among the four flawed answer choices provided. This requires a careful process of elimination in which you weigh each answer choice against the others to find the least wrong answer from among the four imperfect options presented to you. With practice you can learn how to eliminate the obviously wrong answer choices and increase the odds that you will choose the best answer.

While many worthy bar applicants have had promising legal careers cut short by the bar exam, the good news is that the percentage of students who will pass on their first try is greater than the percentage who will not. So while the bar exam may not be a fair test of your ability to practice law, the ability to pass the bar exam is something you are certainly capable of mastering.