More on Reducing the Pain of Taking the Bar Exam:

My post on reducing the pain of taking the bar exam has attracted eminent critics such as Jim Chen and Nancy Rapoport.

In the original post, I argued that many students spend too much time preparing for the bar exam and attending prep courses. Since the exam is primarily a test of memorization, many people can pass simply by studying the books at home, and taking practice tests (which is what I did myself, and I know quite a few other people who successfully did the same thing).

Chen and Rapoport emphasize two points: that the bar exam is hard (as witness the fact that many students fail), and that there are negative career consequences if you don't pass.

Much of our disagreement probably stems from their failure to notice and my own failure to properly emphasize, a key part of my argument that I briefly noted in the original post: that my approach is only likely to work if "you're reasonably good at managing your time and memorizing legal rules." I strongly suspect that many of those who fail the bar exam did so because they didn't measure up on one of these two dimensions. Either they are bad at memorization or they did a poor job of managing their time, or both.

Moreover, I would also emphasize that most of those who failed probably weren't using methods similar to those I used, but instead attended the full Bar/Bri course or the equivalent. I can't know for sure without detailed test data. Yet I suspect that some of them would actually have had a higher chance of passing using the methods I suggest, because bar prep courses tend to use a "lowest common denominator" approach that devotes a lot of time to repetitious explanation of even very simple points. This is useful for the weakest or most inattentive students, but probably isn't necessary for the rest. If you instead spend this same time (or, potentially, much less time) studying the more complex points that are difficult for you personally, you might well do better.

As for the critics' second point (the career damage caused by failing), I think that it is valid but overstated. The fact that failure is a serious setback doesn't prove that students aren't studying too much. After all, no one argues that you should spend every waking moment from graduation to bar exam time studying. That suggests that there is an optimal amount of studying beyond which additional effort isn't worth the cost. If, for example, something like what I did gives you a 95% chance of passing, while spending twice as much time increases it to 97%, the tradeoff probably isn't worth it. Moreover, Chen and Rapoport implicitly assume that your career is kaput if you don't pass the first time around. In reality, plenty of people pass on the second or third attempt and still go on to have perfectly good careers as lawyers. So - assuming that you are reasonably good at memorization and time management - what you get with my approach is a vast savings of time on your first attempt combined (with possibly) a slightly increased chance of having to retake the exam in six months. If you allocate your time properly, you might actually increase your chances of passing relative to taking the full prep course, because you won't spend so much time on endless repetition of material you already know.

Lastly, Jim writes that "[a]n academic appointment is an immense privilege in a world of finite resources and constrained opportunities, and those of us lucky enough to hold a winning ticket should refrain from treating our life circumstances as realistic benchmarks for the legal profession as a whole." In answer, I would note that I didn't know whether or not I would get an academic job at the time I took the exam, and I had to assume that I might end up working in a firm. I may be "immensely privileged" now; but I wasn't back then. Even more to the point, the validity of any argument is independent of the background of the person making it.

Bottom line: I spent about two weeks preparing for the Massachusetts Bar, working perhaps 4-5 hours per day. I know several other people who used similar tactics and spent less time. All of them passed, including a few on the very difficult New York and California exams. I was not an innovator, and was actually on the more cautious side relative to most of the people I know who decided to follow this approach.

Yes, these people were all good students from good schools. However, you don't have to be unusually smart compared to other law students in order to do this. All you have to do is be reasonably good at memorizing, and disciplined enough to take the time to do the necessary memorization. Passing the bar exam is mostly a matter of memorizing legal rules. You don't have to understand the legal rules covered by the exam in any deep way. All you have to do is be able to regurgitate the material you learned.

And, even if my argument is only valid for good students from good schools, it still has some value. Many people who fit this description also spend unnecessarily large amounts of time preparing for the bar. And their time is valuable too.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Reducing the Pain of Taking the Bar Exam:
  2. Reducing the Pain of Taking the Bar Exam: