I passed the July 2012 California Bar Exam by studying for 100 hours—no more than 5 hours per day between July 1st and July 24th. My approach may not be appropriate for everybody. But here are some details nonetheless; hopefully they will help some future examinee.
I. Bar Contrarianism
I suspect two things about the Bar Exam.
First, it’s probably easier than is commonly thought. The received wisdom is that the exam is quite difficult. Naturally, people who fail believe this because it softens the blow. People who pass tend to believe it because they usually grossly overstudied, and are biased to think that all their preparation was important. (If you pass, the State Bar doesn’t tell you by how much.) Test prep companies do their part to terrify law students into enrollment. Everyone’s incentivized to exaggerate.
This is somewhat bizarre, since there’s really not much reason for fear: in California, first-time takers from ABA-approved law schools have a pass rate of about 75%. Scarier, lower figures in the 50% range are commonly cited, but those are misleading because they include repeat-takers, people from unaccredited schools, foreign-educated students, etc. (The pass rates for those groups all hover around 25%. And things are really bleak for people in two of those groups; unaccredited or foreign-educated repeaters pass just 7-10% of the time.) So, if you speak English fluently, haven’t failed the exam before, and you went to a real law school, you’re very likely to pass. If you went to a good law school, you’re looking at more like 90 to 95% odds.
My second suspicion is that managing one’s psychology about the exam is probably as important as anything else. I don’t think most examinees realize this. People tend to become incredibly stressed before the exam. Certainly some small amount of stress can be motivational. But I’d guess that unchecked stress and fear cause more people to fail than insufficient studying does.
Given all this, I figured I could probably pass by studying much less than conventional wisdom instructs, so long as I avoided panicking or feeling guilty about that and instead re-framed it as optimal.
This framing was easy enough because I didn’t have much of a choice. I could not study full-time since I had other priorities and commitments; over the summer, we at Judicata were raising a round of venture capital, hiring people, building a product, etc. So I had to be relatively cavalier in my preparation and relatively carefree about the results.
I think this approach would probably work for most law students who are capable of passing the Bar. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s a good approach for most people, or that it’s not risky. Because I work at a legal tech startup, not a law firm, passing the Bar was professionally important but not quite professionally crucial. (In the unlikely event that I’d fail and have to re-take the exam, most of my startup work would continue unchanged in the interim.) It’s hard to know how much of a difference this makes. But it’s worth noting.
III. Prep Course vs. Self Study
Most examinees take expensive Bar prep courses, which strike me as psychic insurance policies as much as anything else. I suppose I would have taken one if they were free. But I didn’t want to pay out-of-pocket for discipline I could impose on myself. So I just used the BARBRI books from 2010. (These are reasonably cheap on eBay. More on materials in a bit.) If you think you can successfully self-study for the Bar, you probably can. If you think you can’t, my guess is you’re probably wrong about that, but you should definitely take a review course anyway because you will psych yourself out if you don’t and that probably won’t end well.
BARBRI assigns a heavy load—something like 300 to 400 hours of preparation over the course of several months. That seemed excessive. At the other extreme, I had read that someone passed in 2010 with just 90 hours of prep. So I figured that 100 hours would put me in range. This seemed aggressive, but perhaps not insane. Also worth considering is that the Bar Exam itself is 18 hours of testing spread over 3 days. Spending just 2x or 3x testing time on preparation seemed too haughty. There are 17 subjects tested on the exam, and I would probably have been doomed if I tried to learn and retain the basics of, e.g., California law on wills and succession in just 2 or 3 hours. 5 to 6 hours of study per subject and a rough 5:1 prep time to testing time, by contrast, seemed reasonable. Since time was scarce, I knew I had to be efficient. Hence my strict policy of 5 hours of studying per day maximum.
The California Bar Exam can be divided into two parts. There is the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), which is a bunch of multiple-choice questions that cover the basic law school subjects (Constitutional law, contracts, property, torts, criminal law and procedure, and evidence). And then there’s everything else.
“Everything else” means two things:
- Essays, which can cover any of the 7 MBE subjects plus a bunch more (Federal civil procedure and CA-specific civil procedure, evidence, professional responsibility, business associations, trusts, wills and succession, community property, and remedies); and
- Written performance tests, which don’t involve substantive law and are all about reasoning and writing ability.
A. Focus on MBE First
Because multiple-choice is very objective, you can rack up a ton of points by doing well on the MBE. It is much harder to gain ground elsewhere. For example, though the essays are each graded on a 100-point scale, really good answers routinely get 70 or 75 points, while poor answers get 50 or 55. That’s not a whole lot of variance. Much better to excel on the MBE and write average essays than to write great essays but do average on the MBE. I aimed to get through 1,000 practice questions—5x more than the amount on the actual exam—and came pretty close by doing 966 questions in 1,331 minutes. Shooting for 1,000 or 1,500 practice MBE questions is probably a good idea. Nothing is more important than studying your errors!
A note on materials. You need just 2 things to rock the MBE: BARBRI’s Conviser Mini Review, which usually goes for $75-100 on eBay, and a book of practice questions. Memorize everything in Conviser and you will be able to get maybe 90% of practice MBE questions right. No one actually gets 90% of practice or real MBE questions right, of course. (Usually 60-70% on practice questions is a good score, if “hard” question sets are mixed in. And 75-80% on the somewhat easier actual MBE questions is a damn good score.) But this goes to show that knowing Conviser is all you need. It’s thick enough to be hard to memorize but thin enough to be possible. Cracking open the big BARBRI books, or anything more dense or detailed than the Conviser, is entirely unnecessary. Perfect really is the enemy of the good here.
B. Learn the CA Essay Subjects
Essays account for 39% of the Exam score and take up 33% of testing time. The examiners can ask for an essay on any, or any combination, of the 17 subjects. Learning the non-MBE subjects is basically same drill as learning the MBE subjects: read and re-read the Conviser for each subject until you memorize it.
Unfortunately, this is harder than the MBE subjects for two reasons. First, there are no multiple-choice questions to test your knowledge on the non-MBE subjects. (I made flashcards for this purpose.) Second, depending on what you took in law school, these subjects may be completely new to you. Most were new to me.
These elements—subject newness and uncertainty as to progress—may tempt you to go too deep. Resist that temptation. People dedicate entire careers to learning the minutiae of any one of these subjects. That is not your task. If you study business associations for 100 hours, you’ll fail the Bar Exam and still not be an expert on business associations. So spend a few hours with each subject and know most of what’s in the Conviser. That is a recipe for competent essay writing.
I didn’t write any practice essays. This is generally perceived to be suicidal. Practice essays are usually regarded as crucially important. I tend to disagree, since I think that one is in a great deal of trouble if studying for the Bar also entails learning how to write well. I’m just not sure how much practice can help at the margin. Regardless, probably the biggest thing to watch out for is time management. If you’re confident in your writing and that you won’t blow the time management aspect, maybe skip writing practice essays. If you’re nervous about time management or essays generally, practice away. I don’t want to assume away some people’s needs or concerns here—I suppose this is just an area that requires frank self-assessment. But to the extent that time is scarce, it’s much more important to learn the substantive law cold so that what you do write is generally correct. In any case, I’d recommend spending some time looking over some sample essay answers to get a feel for what you have to produce on the exam.
C. Learn a bit about the performance tests, then ignore them
I also didn’t write any practice performance tests (PTs). I spent probably 3-4 hours total reading about the various formats and talking to past exam-takers about them, and that’s it.
Though PTs are important—they count for 26% of the exam score and constitute 33% of total testing time—I found it worthwhile to largely ignore them. The ugly truth is that PTs test skills that can’t be learned or improved quickly. The examiners are trying to see how well examinees can read, organize, reason, and compose a legal document under time pressure. These are general skills that law students have hopefully been developing for a long time by the time they sit for the Bar. If you’re really worried about PTs, by all means practice some. But if you’re pretty comfortable with the basic law school exam format, just take a close look at all the possible PT formats, and then get back to studying the law.
You can absolutely pass the California Bar by studying for 100 hours or less, and not getting freaked out is a key component of that.
The obvious pushback is that neither my advice nor my approach is applicable to people whose careers are on the line when they sit for the exam. There’s obviously limited utility in a “How To Pass The Bar in 100 Hours When You Did Well At An Elite Law School And The Stakes Are Low” sort of post.
I guess I’d counter by suggesting that people might learn from my approach even if copying it doesn’t make sense for them. Just knowing that it’s possible for one to comfortably pass with 100 hours of prep may make a freaking-out BARBRI student with 300 hours under his belt feel bit less stressed. One could still give the MBE the relative weight I suggested, but go on to do 3x more practice questions than I did. The insight that anyone who did reasonably well in his legal writing class should be very confident about taking PTs without practicing at all may be useful to someone who is worried about only having practiced 5 of them. Or at least I hope so.
So how out of touch can this be, really? If the default position is that studying for the Bar is a terrible experience and the whole ordeal is massively stressful, it’s probably worthwhile to be somewhat contrarian and try to avoid that. I doubt I’ve been insensitive to those who, because of differing circumstances, aren’t inclined or able to ratchet up the Bar contrarianism quite as high as I did.
Ultimately I believe what the data suggests. Most smart people from good law schools can and will pass the Bar, and many probably need only minimal studying to do so. Many not-as-smart or otherwise disadvantaged people from poor law schools will fail, even with intense studying and multiple retakes. The 15-20% (yes, I believe it is that small) of people who are somewhere in the middle will pass or fail depending on their study habits.
Fair or not, the Bar Exam rewards a certain brain type. People who can memorize stuff well can do well on the MBE. People who write clearly under time pressure can handle the written parts. Anyone who can’t do one or the other, unfortunately, will fail. It’s not just about hours logged. A solid minority of BARBRI takers routinely fail. Stress or bad luck or inability can be merciless. That is a real shame. Arguably the Bar Exam should be done away with entirely (old version here, modern version here). Meantime, though, one has to pass it to lawyer. Hopefully this post has provided some insight and will help someone do just that.