“Bar Exam Literacy”: How to Cure Uncertainty in Bar Preparation

Hello? Can you read this? You’re all good if you’re literate with the written word—my favorite way to communicate and same with the bar examiners.

You may be literate in many other ways: digital literacy, media literacy, critical literacy, financial literacy…

Yeah, I’m proud of us, too. But I want to talk about “bar exam literacy.”

You’re capable of graduating from law school, you survived all those exams, you may be up to date on developments in case law, etc.

But you’ve noticed by now that the bar exam is a different beast altogether.

You may have had moments of panic… that sinking feeling in your chest that you might be spinning your wheels… a feeling of dread you haven’t felt since you sent the wrong text to the wrong person.

First of all, it’s normal to feel uncertain about the bar. Second, that uncertainty can be cured.

This uncertainty comes from a lack of bar exam literacy. We get confused when we don’t even know what we’re actually aiming for!

  • Charging into outlines trying to piece together the rules is like doing a thousand curls with a 3-pound dumbbell and going out for drinks afterward. Great to start with but not something to do for weeks on end.
  • Watching lectures, taking copious notes, making flashcards, etc. are all ways to start learning in theory. But they’re like someone advising you to buy a house while they’re living paycheck to paycheck with no savings. Why should anyone do anything other than smile and nod at Uncle Ben’s unsolicited advice when he hasn’t actually done it himself?
  • Getting a fancy desk or a new laptop is like giving yourself the golf club that Tiger Woods uses and expecting your putts to be like his. It will help, but wherever you go, there you are. It’s still up to you after all.

These are examples of missing the end goal for shiny tactics. When we don’t know what we’re actually aiming for, we tend to turn to comfort by default, and do what feels productive.

I draw parallels to other areas of life because the bar exam isn’t a discrete module of our lives. How well bar prep goes is intertwined with our very way of thinking and our psychology.

Most importantly, if we’re not satisfied with where we are, we absolutely can change how we approach our goals, whether with the bar exam or other areas in life.

Why other areas? Once I become obsolete to you for the bar exam, we become colleagues. A rising tide lifts all boats.

We KNOW what we SHOULD do in other areas of our lives, with eating, money, exercising, relationships, etc. Whether we enable ourselves to do it is a different story. (I know I don’t want to be snacking all day… so I put away that tub of cheese balls out of sight. Better yet, I don’t keep snacks in the house until someone decides to bring them to my holy sanctum. )

My goal is to at least get you to act and do the things you’re resisting in bar preparation. Here’s how you become bar exam literate:

1)         Emulate a model

The fastest way to get good is to study a reference that you think is great.

The reference could be model answers.

I actually really like the model answers by Barbri specifically. You can emulate the way they lay out the issues and rules (but probably not the analyses, as they are too convoluted and impossible to do in time).

Your state bar offers sample answers from past exams. Check this page for links to sample answers for CA and UBE essays and PTs.

For California bar takers, BarEssays has a collection of real essay answers with actual grades so that you can see what high- and low-scoring essays look like. (Sign up for my emails for a $25 coupon.)

Or look at my free essay answer bank (there are a few non-CA essays, too… looking for donations from anywhere).

Observing and taking note of these exemplary answers can be a valuable part of your preparation. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

That reference could be other people.

It’s not just the time you put in but what you do during that time. “Going through the motions because you have to” isn’t the point and is only holding yourself back. Remember: Some people with months of study time continue to repeat the bar exam, while some with mere hours a week pass it.

What are some differences?

  • Consciously deciding priorities
  • Concentrating mental effort, focusing more on needle movers, managing time (constraints actually force you to get creative and efficient with your time)
  • Managing life and responsibilities outside the bar
  • Letting your mind work for you, not against you (staying optimistic for example)
  • Doing what works for you, not what you think should work
  • And yes, committing to the process and how hard they work

Who do you want to emulate? What did they do? Can you mimic any of it?

If you’re not coming in with the academic skills that your honor classmates have (looking at my 2.833 GPA here), you can still learn them. Taking the bar exam is an acquirable skill.

2)         Develop a bar intuition

This isn’t really something that can be taught from words alone.

Robert S. told me, “Remembering 10 things I can use seems like a better idea than half-remembering 200 things out-of-order.” That’s right.

The technicals are important, but it’s not always about the technical skills.

If you want to get better, the technical basics matter less and less. Yes, you need to “know the law,” but this is a minimum requirement that simply earns you the right to take the exam.

I read and watch content for my own personal learning, but it’s only after I take action steps that I begin to see a real shift. We don’t know if what we’re taught works on the real thing… until we try it! You could tell a toddler not to touch a hot stove, but that’s not going to stop curiosity from doing its thing.

Over the next few weeks, get curious about different aspects of answering essays (note that each subject and issue has its own approach), MBE questions, performance tests, time management, and closed-book practice. Use and not just consume, try different things, experiment, and even have fun with it. The learning never stagnates!

You may know the theory and mechanics, but this is different from actually using the knowledge. Knowing and doing are different.

Prove you can do it. Not on the exam. Today.

Many times, you’ll only understand through experience. Bar preparation is emotional preparation. Piling up these experiences gives you a bar intuition that is personal to you and that you can invoke on the exam.

3)         Motivate yourself to action

External motivation can work: a job that depends on the bar, work you want to do, career path, family pressure, money, being able to list “attorney” in your Bumble bio, pleasing other people in your life…

But instead of relying too much on motivation, use momentum. No one actually gets up in the morning dying to write practice essays. Bursts of motivation aren’t sustainable.

Internal motivation comes from why you’re doing this, the inertia and momentum you create, and the habits you develop from consistency. I’m not gonna ask you to examine your soul or whatever because you’re not going to do it anyway. Just know that with a big enough “why,” you’ll figure out the “how.”

Instead, I’ll ask you to commit to the long term. See through it to the end. You know that you’ll either decide to save the bar for another lifetime or live long enough to see yourself become an attorney.

So figure out what it is you need to do. Either make it easy to do or make it difficult to NOT do. This could be leaving your books out overnight, getting resources or a tutor, reframing the bar exam as a $50,000 project, setting up reminders, setting up stakes, etc.

Get into a habit. Create that momentum. Do the hard work up front. You’ll feel differently about it. Don’t be afraid to give yourself an advantage.

Bar exam literacy is not just about increasing factual knowledge but also acting on your knowledge and changing the way you think as necessary. It’s about converting that potential energy into kinetic energy.

Let me know what you’ve decided to do. I’d love to hear. [Go here to share with me]

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