Memorizing for the Bar Exam: How to Remember and Recite the Rules

There’s this weird phenomenon where you meet someone new and then 1 second later it’s impossible to remember each other’s names.

To be honest, if I didn’t care about them 10 seconds ago, I’m not gonna care about them all of a sudden as if they were my newborn (whom I’d name Genghis (Hahn) so I don’t forget).

But what can I say? It’s impressive, for that exact reason, when someone actually uses your name in conversation without having to say, “Sorry what was your name again? I’m so terrible with names hahahahaha.” 

Actually, I think I creeped my neighbor the hell out when I greeted her by her name after having met once. Well hey, some people just won’t appreciate you, and that’s how life is.

I was able to remember because of the same thing I did as a 1L: I used a notepad (now my phone) to write down new people’s names so I could keep referring back to them later. Kristina has no clue who I am now, but I remember meeting her on the metro bus on the way to the bonfire in 2010 thanks to that notepad.

Useless information I wish I could forget—I tend to remember the very things I want to forget about the most. But if it’s possible to remember names of people we don’t give a damn about, then it’s possible to remember the foundations for our profession.

One of the themes I advocate here regarding improving is to focus more on “big wins” and needle movers. Not spending an ungodly number of hours exhausting yourself with lectures, flashcard arts and crafts, or memorization.

However, memorizing (or more directly, remembering) is still an unavoidable base requirement for succeeding on your essays and the MBE.

And the fact is, your bar exam requires you to remember a LOT of shit. The typical brain is made for processing data but not so much for forcing discrete information to be inscribed into your memory forever.

However! The brain is great at absorbing experiences and making powerful connections: When the same neurons get used over and over, or certain neurons get triggered HARD, the connection gets stronger; as those neurons are fed that input less and less, the connection drops. Sounds like, you know, a muscle.

Put simply, you can train your brain to remember the important stuff through repetition. No wonder habit evidence is more powerful than character evidence!

“Oh, here we go again. You’ve said that like 20 times already.” Instead of promoting me to Admiral Obvious, why not tell me the arsenal of techniques that you use to remember all the stuff you need to know for the bar? Yeah, thought so.

Frequency of recall and attempts to recall are the basis of all memorization, and you can even leverage what you already know.

The following are some ways you can use to solidify that hazy jumble of rules in your head.

1. Test yourself through recall in real situations.
2. Understand the concepts.
3. Rote memorize.
4. Shock yourself.
5. When should you start memorizing?

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: How to Remember and Recite the Rules

1.     Test yourself through recall in real situations.

You do this all the time.

For example, when you first drove to a new place, you had to follow directions or a map. You do it a few times, and one day you try it without relying on the map. Maybe you get lost; maybe you remember the way. Either way, you’ve soon gotten the route down.

If you’ve ever played an instrument and wanted to play a piece well, you had to practice. In particular, you might have exercised deliberate practice, where you focus on one part of the piece or even one aspect of that part (tempo, dynamics, one hand, etc.) instead of the entire piece.

You don’t remember your student ID number the first few times, but you probably still remember it now after having had to fill it out so many times. Same with your phone number, your account passwords, your buddies’ AIM screen names (even if barely anyone uses it anymore), etc.

Committing something to memory is accomplished by initially failing to remember, then attempting to recall it over and over. In other words, what your brain remembers what it needs to remember.

Guess what helps with this? Actually solving problems and using the rules in context.

“Knowing” something is merely the cost of entry. You must be able to apply what you know to solve a problem. You could have the fanciest lockpicking set, but you won’t be opening locks anytime soon until you can successfully open different types of locks. Your teenage kids might “know” what’s good or bad for them, but they won’t realize it until later, maybe even after years of being an adult.

When I was a freshman in college, a classmate wanted my cheat sheet for the midterm. It had a list of equations to be used for particular circumstances. She got the lowest score in the class because she assumed just having my cheat sheet was sufficient. If she had used them to practice instead, she probably would have done better.

Therefore, test yourself with past essays and real MBE questions to really “get” the rules, even before you get familiar with the issues and rules. “Clarity comes through engagement, not through thought.”

The benefits are three-fold:

  1. You learn how a particular issue and a particular rule/exception interact contextually. Forcing yourself to know the rules in theory won’t help as much because knowing the rules in abstract is just half the battle.
  2. You emulate the exam with questions that have actually been used, so you learn and absorb the actual testing style. Something always feels off about generic brands, same with questions manufactured by prep companies.
  3. Even if you don’t know the rules, failing at the issue or question tells your brain, “Dude, I really need to know this, so make that connection!” You’re less likely to forget after becoming interested in it (to the extent you can). Win-win.

Don’t be afraid of failing horrifically the first couple times. Don’t be afraid of redoing problems. Feedback and adjustment in the face of failure are where improvement comes from.

This means that you do not need to know absolutely everything there is to know. Rather, it’s impossible to remember all 800 pages of your outline. Hence, your first priority is to remember the rules that have been used in the past. Those are what you “should know.”

In other words, you can’t and don’t need to memorize everything, so you might as well focus on the ones that have come up in the past.

I’m not suggesting that you forget everything else. Try the below approaches for the rules you first begin trying to learn as well as the rules you never got to apply during practice. There will be a lot of the latter in MEE jurisdictions since the questions are relatively narrowly targeted such that previous exams don’t cover a broad range of issues.

2.      Understand the concepts.

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This means you have to understand it beyond just knowing what the words in the rule statement say. Fortunately, you don’t need to teach the law to anyone but yourself. Even if sometimes you don’t know how to explain something out loud, you just need to “get” it.

This is great! You don’t have to memorize every word of what your outline tells you as long as you can say it in your own words, accurately. Being able to accurately reword it is evidence of understanding. It also helps if you can see why the rule is that way (the policy). Now you don’t need to test yourself as frequently.

So despite swearing loyalty to Barbri, you don’t need to state the rules exactly as it tells you. When the time comes, succinctly write the rule as if you were explaining it to someone.

Caveat: Do focus on well-established general elements and not freestyle it into a mess so that you don’t stick out like a nail among a sea of Barbri students, who are the majority of people writing the answers. You want to use keywords to blend in and sound somewhat similar to other applicants so that the grader can assume you got the rule right.

Example 1. For strict scrutiny, mention: government, necessary classification, compelling interest, although you can phrase the rule any way you want.

Example 2. For larceny, mention: trespassory, taking, carrying away, personal property, of another, intent to permanently deprive. Even if you write them out as 6 elements in your general rule, you can discuss related ideas together. For instance, on your answer, you might make the headings “Taking and Carrying Away,” “Personal Property of Another” and “Intent to Permanently Deprive,” then discuss whether it was trespassory (i.e., that it was taken without consent) somewhere in your answer (probably under intent, if the facts fit).

Furthermore, you can link a particular concept to something you already know:

  1. Like how I had to use a fictional character’s name to remember my coworker’s name for like a year (sad), you can associate ideas together to serve as a reminder, instead of using brute recall. For example, I only have to know that there are two types of intoxication defenses for SI crimes and one for GI crimes for me to know that they are involuntary and/or voluntary intoxication. And it makes intuitive sense that involuntary intoxication would get more slack and thus is a defense for both (i.e., it’s the only type of intoxication defense for GI crimes).
  2. You can sparingly create mnemonics on a need-to-know basis. Too many of them lose their purpose because they’re supposed to help you remember stuff, not create more things to memorize. If you need to make mnemonics of mnemonics, you probably have too many going on.
  3. You can create visual tools, such as a table. For example, I made a table for admissible internal vs. external evidence for the various methods of impeachment. Visually remembering that the location of the phrase “Never admissible” is on the right side immediately tells me it is for extrinsic evidence. (These tables are available in my Magicsheets btw.)

3.     Rote memorize.

Of course, we have the favorite of college students who want to party but also appear nerdy by choosing a biology or psychology major: rote memorization.

You thought you were out of the woods with the “understand the concepts” method above. If you actually understand all the bar law, please stay still while we send a team of scientists to capture and keep you alive as a valuable specimen.

Let’s go back to the first method: testing yourself with real questions through recall. It would be tough if that’s all you did because some rules have not been tested in past essays and may be tested for the first time (there’s always one or two WTF questions).

Which means there needs to be some rote memorization.

Again, it’s the frequency of recall and attempts to recall that improve your memory. Not just being familiar, not reading it and saying “yeah I know this”—but recall and attempts to recall. It’s OK to not remember the first few times.

So you can ask yourself: “What’s needed for organizational standing?” Try to recite the answer. Don’t know it? Look at it. Keep testing yourself until you get it. You will have trouble with some rules. Don’t stop testing yourself when you’re merely familiar with what you see. Test yourself again in a few hours, the next day, in a few days. The more you do it, the better you retain it.

Wanna take it a step further? Take strategic breaks.

(Feel free to skip to #4 below if you want to focus on bigger results. We’re going into tactical territory with what should happen in theory, but any excuse to take breaks is a good idea, right?)

The memorization process tends to operate under the serial position effect (“the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst”). Look at the U-shaped graph in the Wikipedia article I just linked. With a large set of things to know and too much to memorize, this effect happens a lot during your study. Let’s tweak the graph so that recall dips across an arbitrary length of study.

Now does it follow that putting a break in between the time spent trying to memorize improves recall? Stated differently: If your typical recall rate is like a U as shown in the article above, does spiking your usual study period with an artificial “end”—say, a planned 10-minute break in the middle that you know is coming—create a W (double U) representing greater recall?

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: Retention of memorized information using the serial position effect combined with breaks

Moreover, research on taking mental breaks (even small ones) shows “[t]hat learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation” (emphasis added).

And “[d]uring downtime, the brain also concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties. . . . the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue.”

Resting more (guilt-free!) while being more productive sounds good to me.

In sum, you can buff your rote memorization by trying to recall frequently, not relying on familiarity, and taking strategic breaks. Trying to solve real problems and trying to accurately recite your understanding of a rule can also be a conduit for remembering. (The ultimate combination? Teaching someone.)

4.     Shock yourself.

Someone wanted to know what was up with the Crim Pro acronyms in my Approsheets (issue checklists and flowcharts for essays):

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: the email

I wonder what she’s talking about…

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: the mnemonics

Poop references. Really?

What the hell have I been doing with my life? Maybe it’s time to… log out.

This is embarrassing. I hate having to show this to you. But the thing is, it’s helpful. I made those mnemonics back in law school and found them helpful, so I pulled them out of notes from years yonder for your benefit.

In the midst of the doldrums and tedium of the bar, it doesn’t matter if it makes you cringe or if it shocks you because “[a]nything that helps memorize faster is useful” (especially thinking about ass):

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: Anything that helps memorize faster is useful

Just don’t tell anyone about your weirdo memory device.

When should I start memorizing?

This is another concern I’ve noticed.

One camp of people says to memorize in the last 2 weeks for short-term memory. I personally tried to learn and memorize the concepts all throughout preparation. Isn’t that what studying is about?

As you write practice essays and answer MBE questions, the rules will naturally get etched into your head. And as you understand the concepts, you can start to recite rules with the appropriate keywords.

There is nothing wrong with starting to memorize early (but don’t put off practice just to do this). Just because you will eventually forget doesn’t mean you won’t retain better the subsequent times you memorize it.

As stated, the key to memorization and remembering is frequent recall. So see if you can memorize and recall whenever possible (including during practice), and focus on memorizing in the last two weeks as well. Creating a last-minute acronym or mnemonic may help if you just can’t seem to remember a rule.

The rule statements don’t have to be identical to whatever you read in outlines as long as you include the main elements in a clear manner.

And again, be sure you can actually recite the concepts or rules on your own from scratch, not merely be familiar with them. Test yourself!

Should I memorize everything?

This is not necessary or feasible. Prioritize based on these categories:

(1) law that has been tested in the past (which you can only find out by solving problems) + related sub-issues including nuances of each element of “big” rules, exceptions, defenses, related minor issues, etc. (see part 1 above)

(2) other law that you think is important (see parts 2 and 3 above)

(3) fringe rules that you don’t think are important or worth the time (see parts 2 and 3 above)

Dude, how do you expect me to remember all this (and more)? Summarize!

  • Memorize things by testing your recall frequently.
  • Test yourself with real scenarios, e.g., past essays, real MBE questions.
  • Understand the concept of what you’re trying to memorize.
  • Shortcut the recall process by associating it with what you already know. Create mnemonics sparingly on a need-to-know basis.
  • Recite the rules as if you’re explaining them to someone while including keywords.
  • Brute force your way by rote memorizing; improve your brute recall by avoiding mere familiarity and planning breaks.
  • Get weird, interesting, and creative to make it stick.

What has worked for you when trying to memorize a large amount of information? Have you tried the methods discussed above? Let me know below.


4 Replies to “Memorizing for the Bar Exam: How to Remember and Recite the Rules”

    1. Hi Daniel,

      If you decide to jump into essay questions without studying the rules, the first few times will definitely be difficult. And that’s the point.

      The issues and rules that you didn’t know about will be engraved in your mind as you do your best and then review the model answers. As you do many essays, you will see which issues and rules are important.

      That said, I would still give yourself a day of review and studying the rules before jumping in. It helps to have some background knowledge. But practice will get you from “knowledge” to “experience.”

      Not sure why I wasn’t notified of your comment, just happened to notice this. Apologies for the late response!

    1. Hey John, I’d recommend first working through past essays “open book” with whatever material you need, such as outlines and issue checklist and flowchart (Approsheets).

      The more you practice identifying the issues and reciting the corresponding rules with several essays per subject, the more you’ll internalize them.

      Over the next couple weeks, hopefully you won’t need the sheets anymore. Leave the last two weeks to plow through essays “closed book,” and don’t be afraid to redo the same ones.

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