This foreign attorney who struggled with essays passed the California Bar Exam with the lowest July pass rate (40%)

Lars was a Canadian attorney taking the California Bar Exam. He took it once in 2018 February. Then he passed the following July.

“I took it twice. The first time was in February and I got 1393, and then I wrote again in July and passed the second time.”

Lars was decent enough on the MBE and the PT thanks to his existing lawyering skills, but he needed help with the essays.

“I came really close on the MBE the first time. I think I missed one question but I struggled with the essays. I did well on the PT, the first time, which I think I can attribute to being a lawyer.”

Unlike the MBE and the PT, essays force you to work your “origination muscle”—to come up with words to write (instead of filling in letters) based on what you’ve memorized. We can break it down to a three-step process: Memorize the law, be able to recall it, and able to apply it.

“I kind of thought going in the first time, I would be able to just sort of manage the essays better than I could. . . . As a whole, the issue with the grading of the papers, there is a real issue where I don’t feel like a lot of the graders are grading equally.”

Challenges as a foreign attorney

What’s more, like many foreign attorneys, Lars had to unlearn and learn new subjects he’d never seen before as a Canadian lawyer.

“U.S. Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure were completely new to me. I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t take Evidence in law school, so that was also a fun, new challenge. And then for the essays, obviously all the California-specific subjects were all new to me.”

One of his biggest challenges came from being used to an open-book format throughout his academic career, where he didn’t have to memorize. Lars now had to write essays closed-book.

“One of the issues was, I graduated from law school ten years ago. In Canada, all of our exams for all of law school and the bar are open book. So I hadn’t written a closed-book exam since my undergraduate degree.”

One of the biggest traps of memorization is familiarity—feeling like you could use it based on mere familiarity but not being able to retrieve it from memory. Lars found that knowing the rules conceptually was vastly different from knowing how to use them.

“I would go through my materials and feel like, ‘Oh, I could crush a practice essay.’ And then I could open it and just have no idea how to put down what I just read in a comprehensible form.”

The cherry on top was Lars’s full-time work schedule of 40 hours a week.

“I’m working full-time.”

Advantages as a repeater

But like many repeaters, Lars had an advantage going in: knowledge from his previous attempt. He was able to base his approach around his strong suits, the MBE and the PT, and build upon that for the essays.

“I was just coming up to the threshold, I guess 68% for the MBE, but I wasn’t getting it consistently. By the time I started for the second round, that was basically my base point. So it was easy to build on that.”

His experience also gave him a cushion and a hedge against subjects that hadn’t appeared in his previous attempt but might appear in the next one. This was a calculated risk that he took as a repeater, having seen particular subjects already.

“I just really focused on subjects I thought would appear that hadn’t been on the February exam and had been appearing in July more regularly. . . . I was really banking on having a cushion on the MBE and doing well on the PT.”

Improving on the essays

Lars found an efficient way to cover a broad range of practice essays on the MTYLT blog.

“I went back to time to time again when I was preparing was your post on essay cooking. I came to the understanding I wanted to be able to have gone through enough essay subjects, enough practice essays for every topic that there wouldn’t be anything that blindsided me.”

As for supplements, Lars used Mary Basick’s Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam in conjunction with BarEssays. (Note: These are only applicable to California essays.)

“Because the Basick book was dated, I wanted to be able to go through more recent essays and practice more recent topics. I would write the practice essays and then compare them to the graded one on BarEssays.”

(BarEssays offers actual graded essay answers that received a range of scores. You can see a pattern in high- and low-scoring answers. MTYLT subscribers can get $25 off BarEssays by signing up for my emails.)

For the MBE, there are a couple of popular go-to resources. One that comes up time and time again is Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics, which was helpful not only for my own preparation but for many other passers as well. Lars studied the explanations for each answer choice, including for the questions he got right to make sure he got them for the right reason.

“I read it cover-to-cover. I used BarMax too. But Emanuel’s just had much better explanations. I read literally every single answer.”

Managing resource overload with condensed materials

That said, Lars was getting overwhelmed with study materials. He needed something that condensed and consolidated the topics for him.

“I was finding one of the problems that I had was, I had too much material. The first time and, partially through the second time, took the approach of, buy every resource I could and have all these different outlines to keep going through them. I was just getting overwhelmed by the amount of material. I felt like, to do the essays, I really needed to have something that was condensed that I could go over, that I could commit to memory as much as possible, and the Magicsheets were exactly that.”

Lars found that condensed materials made practice manageable, including issue identification. Condensed references are also handy to bring to the test venue!

“I had the Approsheets. They were good, but the Magicsheets were the only material that I ended up taking down with me this time. I just made a binder with all the Magicsheets. They were super good. . . . I would go through them and then I would write an essay. And then I would go through them again. I just found they were really well condensed and manageable, rather than having a 20-page outline. I would say they helped most with the issue spotting.”

Relief from putting the bar exam behind him

Putting the bar exam behind once and for all is the goal of every bar taker. Lars achieved that goal and found immense relief from making it his last time taking the bar.

“It definitely gives me a path forward, and now knowing that I don’t have to do this again is amazing. It’s such a relief.”

Passing the bar enabled Lars to do leisure activities that he enjoyed, like sports and traveling, and to spend time with people he cared about in his free time.

“I play soccer. I am captain of a soccer team. I hang out with my friends like doing a bunch of traveling that I was nervous about booking without having known the result. Now I’ve got a bunch of trips planned. . . . I am going away tomorrow. I’m going away this weekend. . . . I’m a die-hard Minnesota Viking fan, and I’m going this weekend to Sunday night football in Minneapolis.”

Foreign attorney Lars after passing California bar
Foreign attorney Lars after passing California bar

Parting advice on maximizing your score

If Lars has a parting piece of advice to students starting out now, it would be to get those points on the MBE and take an extra 30 minutes on the PT (deducted from the afternoon essay questions). This leaves more of a buffer for those subjective essays.

“I still started studying by focusing on the MBE. And really ensuring that I have more than above a passing score on that because I knew there would be one or two essays that I would struggle with no matter how much I study. . . . Run up the score on the MBE, and take more time for the PTs, and then you’re maximizing your ability to get points on the most objective categories.”

Lars doesn’t agree with bar takers who feel that the questions on the MBE are different even from the past released questions. He felt comfortable with his preparation of having done the real questions ahead of time.

“I don’t understand why people keep saying this. I went through all four of the MBE official practice exams and all the questions of the bar. The older questions are very different, but I felt very prepared for the MBE. . . . I mean, look: There were definitely some weird questions that I hadn’t seen before, but in my mind when I was doing them, I was like, these are the tough questions.”

Nice work, Lars! You can listen to the entire interview:

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