Busting 4 Myths of Memorization for the Bar Exam

Many bar takers are obsessed with the idea of memorization for the bar exam.

Understandably, a lot of students naturally panic and have concerns about it. I think it comes from a place of insecurity. There’s a LOT to remember after all.

Panic mutates into paralysis. They say, “As long as I memorize this perfectly, I will be set for the bar exam.” They end up holding a bag of theoretical knowledge they don’t know how to use, neglect the performance test in the process, and end up with a sorely lacking written score.

This may seem to be a safe approach, but it’s actually reckless. It isn’t going to work for most people. It’s not the point. But this is a common thought process, especially for those starting out.

That may be why people are excited for the open-book bar exam in some states. I eagerly await the test takers’ realization that it’s not just about having access to knowledge but whether they can use it properly. Removing the memorization requirement doesn’t really change the exam. In fact, it will probably hurt unless you know how to look things up quickly.

It’s not that I’m ragging on memorization. You should memorize—but not at the expense of learning. It’s table stakes. Everyone’s doing it. It’s a minimum requirement. Just a cost of entry. So you do want to start memorizing as early as you can. 

I want to point out what bar students miss when they get tunnel vision around memorization. Don’t miss the forest for the trees:

1) Don’t use “memorization” as a safe space

If you’re thinking, “I need to know all the rules perfectly before I can solve problems!” You’re just procrastinating. You’re acting out of fear.

Didn’t you have years in law school to “know the rules” by now? Never mind.

Well, the bar exam is scary. But this reaction is common and normal. And once you know the truth, you can fix it.

Mastering the bar exam is also about mastering your ego and psychology and embracing the discomfort that comes with straining your mind. Just “memorizing” is not enough.

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It hurts seeing that you missed a bunch of questions or issues.

It hurts even more to get a shitty score on the bar exam. Not passing hurts MORE than struggling now.

Better to get excited about failure now so that you don’t have to motivate yourself again 6 months later. Yes, excited! Every result is a valuable data point with something to take away.

Remember you’re here to learn (not for education). Don’t try to be ready before you’re ready.

2)         Memorization for the bar exam isn’t just about memorizing rules

Issues are arguably more important than rules, especially on the essays. That’s why I also spotlight the issues in Magicsheets and Approsheets and organize them as they are tested, not just the rules.

Issues are like seeds where IRACs sprout from. You could fumble on the rule and application and still get some credit. If you can’t tell the grader what the issues are to begin with, no IRAC is gonna sprout. You get zero credit for that issue.

Know the issues.

3)         Memorization happens as you use it and after you use it

There’s a reason you don’t remember 99% of your lectures.

Knowledge outside the context of fact patterns is nothing. It’s possible to have knowledge but lack judgment. The WHAT is artificial if you don’t know HOW to use it.

This is a test of application, not just barfing up what you rote memorized (although that is part of it).

Yes, you do need to rote memorize a lot of things because not everything testable has been tested before or it’s hard to find every question that has tested a certain issue or rule. Some MBE questions in particular can test obscure rules and nuances.

But most of your bar intuition will come from seeing the patterns from old exams and questions. Look to what’s done before because the past will guide your future.

Understanding separates us from robots. What does the rule mean? Can you re-derive it from the ground up?

I’d suggest that you FIRST try to solve problems (like MBE questions and essays) with imperfect knowledge so that you UNDERSTAND how the issues and rules are used. AND THEN, you can fill in the gaps by memorizing and understanding the rules and issues.

In other words, learn by example, not by theory.

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Memorization for the bar exam happens as you use

This will let you be able to pull out the issues and rules you need from memory, and probably more importantly, recall your understanding of how to use them.

Yes, unlike real life, there is often a correct response—the intended, credited answer—even on essays.

4) It’s more about being able to remember what you’ve memorized and use it on the bar exam

“Recognizing something when you see it”

is NOT the same as

“being able to remember it.”

You must be able to recall (retrieve at appropriate times), not merely recognize, be familiar, or even memorize (encode into memory).

So far, these mythbusters have cautioned you against tunnel vision and overreliance on the “easy work” of memorizing. But I did say that memorization is required.

It helps if you boil down the most important issues and rules, which you can see by using a streamlined reference, and exposing yourself to past exam questions to see what gets tested often.

This raises the question: How do you memorize and remember the material?

Memorizing for the bar exam is a learnable skill. If you want more specifics on memorization itself, check out Passer’s Playbook 2.0. It will answer these questions (under Section III: Fundamental Study Strategies):

  • What are 5 ways to solidify the information in your head?
  • When should you start memorizing?
  • How do you split your time?
  • Should you memorize everything?
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