Memorizing for the Bar Exam: 5 Ways 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.

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 just met 10 seconds ago also.

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

Forget social fluency for now (if you haven’t already preparing for this death ritual). Let’s impress the bar graders by memorizing (or more importantly, remembering), which is needed to succeed on your essays and the MBE.

And as you’ve noticed, your bar exam requires you to remember a LOT.

Fortunately, 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.

Let’s take advantage of what else our brains can do to help us memorize things…

If there’s anything to remember from this guide, it’s this: Frequency of recall and attempts to recall are the basis of all memorization.

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

Not just being familiar with a rule, not reading it and saying “yeah, I know this”… but recalling and attempting to recall.

Before we proceed, here’s a fairly common trap: relying too much on memorizing.

I get it. It feels safe. It feels like the way to do it. Memorizing rules is needed after all.

But the test isn’t about whether you can memorize rules. It’s not even really about whether you can recall the rules.

Recalling (in the right context) is part of it… but it is table stakes. A cost of entry. A minimum requirement. Everyone does it, and everyone is obsessed with it.

It’s about whether you can identify the relevant issues. It’s whether you can use the rules to come to the right conclusion. You could collect all the bullets you want, but can you hit the target?

Answer this before you move on. Did you remember what I said earlier?

Frequency of ______ and ______ are the basis of all memorization.

Now you’re less likely to forget after trying to remember this.

With that said, here are some ways you can use to solidify that hazy jumble of rules (and issues) in your head. A quick list with more details to follow:

  1. Test yourself through recall in real situations. USE what you think you know. Solve problems and use the rules in context. “Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.”
  2. Understand the concepts. Understand to learn. Memorization is a side effect of that!
  3. Encode the rules with trigger words. Remembering parts can remind you of the rest.
  4. Rote memorize. Sometimes you’ll still need to do this. See below for an example how to do this.
  5. Shock yourself. Make it sticky! It can be as personal, creative wacky, strange, or cringey as you want. Anything that helps you memorize faster is useful.

Some FAQs after that:

  • When do you start memorizing?
  • Should you memorize or practice?
  • Should you memorize everything?

1. Test yourself through recall in real situations.

You do this all the time in real life.

When you remember the way to a new place. When you’re playing an instrument and focus on one part of the piece until it sounds right before moving onto another part. Your ID number, phone number, account passwords, buddies’ screen names on Discord, 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.

The benefits are three-fold (on top of giving you the practice you need):

▶ You learn how a particular issue and a particular rule/nuance/exception interact together contextually. There’s a difference between knowing the rules in theory and knowing how to use them.

▶ You learn and absorb the actual testing style because you emulate the exam with questions that have actually been used. Something always feels off about generic brands (I say as I eat these Kroger-brand canned pears).

▶ Even if you don’t know the rules, failing at remembering the issue or rule tells your brain, “Dude, I really need to know this, so make that connection!” You’re less likely to forget after getting called out by your brain. Win-win.

In fact, I want you to FAIL at remembering each rule at least once. Remember that it’s about attempts to recall, not mere familiarity.

This means that you don’t 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 prioritize the ones that have come up before.

If you want condensed outlines that streamline the most tested rules for you, try using Magicsheets. You’ll find them easier to handle and practice instead of a huge encyclopedia.

2. Understand the concepts.

One of the best ways 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. In this case, you don’t need to teach the law to anyone but yourself.

This is great! You don’t have to memorize every exact word in your outline 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).

So, despite swearing loyalty to Barbri, you don’t need to stress over remembering the rules exactly as it tells you (although it’s great if you do). When the time comes, you can state the rule as if you were explaining it to someone, keeping in mind that you should still be precise with certain standards (e.g., “foreseeable,” “reasonable” or “necessary to achieve a compelling government interest”).

Caveat: Do remember 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 has an easier time determining that 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.

To help with this…

You can also associate a particular concept to something you already know to serve as a reminder instead of using brute recall. Like how I had to use a fictional character’s name to remember my coworker’s name for like a year (sad).

You can sparingly create mnemonics on a need-to-know basis. Having too many of them may go against their very purpose because they’re supposed to help you remember stuff, not create more things to memorize.

You can create visual tools, such as a table. Visually remembering that the location of the phrase “Never admissible” is on the right side immediately tells me that extrinsic evidence of a prior bad act of truthfulness is inadmissible. This is what I mean (taken from Magicsheets):

Visual tool for memorizing Evidence Magicsheets

3. Encode the rules with trigger words.

How do public speakers do speeches one after the other? Have they memorized the speech word for word?

Maybe. More often, they might use or memorize notes that have trigger words on them.

Rather than trying to recall the entire speech, they try to recall bullet points or topics to talk about. One word or phrase might prompt the next sentence, the next story, or the next chunk of dialogue. The entire speech may be encoded in these brief phrases.

This even allows them to tell the same speech in different ways. When you tell the same story to different friends, it’s not exactly the same.

Reciting bar law is similar in that it doesn’t need to be exactly the same (save for specific standards and terms of art). Of course, if you can recall the exact rule, use it. And you can’t do this for every rule, nuance, and list of exceptions. But there’s less burden on your mind if you understand the concept and build the words instead of digging through your memory.

In fact, by giving yourself the freedom to deviate from what you know word for word, you’re less likely to “blank out” if you can’t think of the exact rule.

That’s also why, in your essays, you can automatically recall the rules if you hit the issues. Like a waterfall cascading down.

Oftentimes, students will know the rules but not necessarily remember all the relevant issues or hit on the relevant issues. They miss the chance to even write down the rules because of that.

That’s why memorizing is not about memorizing the rules only but also knowing the issues and when to bring up the issues.

Here’s how to systematically ensure you get down all the relevant issues (Approsheets will also help you avoid the blank-page syndrome and not leave any points on the table).

4. Rote memorize.

Of course, we also 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? 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.

It would be tough if testing yourself with real questions is 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 on each exam).

Which means there needs to be some rote memorization.

Once again, it’s the frequency of recall and attempts to recall that thing that improve your memory of that thing. 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? Do your best. Then look it up. 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.

Want to take it a step further? Take strategic breaks.

(Feel free to skip to #5 below if you want to focus on bigger results. We’re going into tactical territory…)

According to 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.” You could spike your usual study period with an artificial “end”say, a planned 10-minute break in the middle that you know is coming.

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

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.

5. Shock yourself.

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

Memorizing for the Bar Exam: email about Approsheets

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 class notes from years yonder for your benefit.

In the midst of the doldrums and tedium of the bar, it doesnt matter if it makes you cringe or if it shocks you because anything 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 do I start memorizing? How far along bar prep?

Some say 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’s nothing wrong with starting to memorize early, but don’t neglect practice entirely just to do this (see below). In fact, I recommend trying to memorize every chance you can. 

Just because you will eventually forget something doesn’t mean you won’t retain it better the next time you try to memorize it (since it’s about the frequency of recall attempts). In fact, “spacing” your studies and revisiting the material reinforces your memory of it (serial positioning effect).

Do I memorize or practice?


Get background foundation from an outline or other source material, refine your understanding through questions, and review the outline to solidify your understanding and memorize the words. 

This process of understanding the words will make memorization of the words easier.

How do I split my time?

It depends on how close you are to bar week. Generally, I see it as a sliding scale where in the beginning you spend 2/3 of your time on reviewing rules and 1/3 on practice, and then as you get closer to the exam you spend 2/3 of your time on practice and 1/3 on review.

Your actions during review and practice can both contribute toward memorization in different ways:

  • During review of the rules, you might focus on trying to understand the rules and rote memorize.
  • During practice, you might focus on trying to remember the rules you studied.
  • During post-practice review and self-critique, you might return to your outlines and put emphasis on identifying key rules and rules that you missed.

Should I memorize everything?

This is not necessary or feasible.

And I’m not gonna lie: Even if you memorize an entire outline, you will have to guess the rule at least a few times. You will see at least one question on the exam that makes you go WTF.

Although they could technically test you on anything, they tend to test around a finite universe of bar law. Prioritize based on these categories:

(1) Rules and issues that have been tested in the past (which you can only find out by solving past exam questions). This includes rules for related sub-issues, including nuances of each element of “big” rules, exceptions, defenses, related minor issues, etc. Here are the biggest (highly tested) areas on the MBE.

(2) Other rules and issues that you think are important. You can tell because these issues and rules are familiar. Perhaps you’ve run into them once or twice during practice. Maybe you’ve seen them in law school.

(3) Fringe rules and issues that haven’t come up but are testable and are included in your outlines. Essays and particularly MBE questions may still test obscure rules.

Notice I keep mentioning “issues” because it’s not just about knowing the rules.

Dude, how do you expect me to remember all this?

Consolidate and summarize!

  • Yet again: Memorize things by testing your recall frequently; go beyond mere familiarity
  • Test yourself in real scenarios, e.g., past essays and MBE questions
  • Understand the concept of what you’re trying to memorize
  • Brute force your way by rote memorizing
  • Get weird, interesting, and creative to make it stick

If you want timely reminders instead of having to retain all this at once, sign up for my insider weekly newsletter where I share goodies and strategies I don’t share in the blog. Click here to sign up.

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18 Replies to “Memorizing for the Bar Exam: 5 Ways 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. Hi Brian,

        Thanks for your reply which I just read. It’s a blessing by coincidence because while it’s late, my recent self prep experience gave me a better understanding of your message.


        1. Hi,
          My name is Kelly. I’d like to connect with students who will sit the WS’ Bar exams in February of next year. How do I get connected, please?

    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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