Passing the California Bar Exam with the “Tripod Approach” (Just Triage These Areas)

Let’s say you have an overwhelming amount of material to learn for the California Bar Exam with limited time. (Who doesn’t?)

Or when one door opens, another door closes. You’re not consistently scoring well on the essays. You’re getting a 55 on some. You know you can get a 65 or more if you had more time. Or you just need a little push to get to a 1390 scaled score on the MBE, but then you feel like you’re sacrificing the written portion.

There are a couple of approaches focusing on a few key areas (rather than spreading yourself thin) that could bring you over the hump to pass the California Bar Exam…

This is the basis for the Tripod Approach (click to scroll directly there), which is a minimally effective approach to get the largest return for your efforts in preparing for the California Bar Exam.

Consider these two approaches:

1) Be solid on the MBE subjects

This one is pretty simple. But it’s not always easy.

Some bar takers find the MBE easier than writing essays and PTs. Some find it the opposite.

But HALF of your score hinges on a series of 200 choices.

Not only that, the MBE subjects are the majority of essay topics. At least 3-4 of the 5 essays on the California Bar Exam will cover MBE subjects.

Some strategies to improve your MBE score:

2) On the written portion, prioritize Professional Responsibility (PR) + performance test (PT)

Professional Responsibility (PR) is a subject that is practically guaranteed to appear as an essay.

(It’s not 100% guaranteed to appear. For instance, it didn’t show up as an essay in 2015 February and 2007 July, although ethics showed up as a theme for the PT-A in both administrations.)

The performance test (PT) is worth 200 out of the 700 raw points for the written portion of the California Bar Exam (or for the entire Attorneys’ Exam). In other words, the PT is worth 2 essays, and you get 1.5x the time allotted. The points are highly concentrated in the PT, and it’s worth 14.3% of your overall score on the California Bar Exam.

Many bar takers ignore the PT until the last moment (if at all). Or they might rely on their “lawyer-like” writing skills to wing it.

It would behoove you to prioritize these two areas: the PR essay and the PT, since we know they will show up on the California Bar Exam.

Let’s say we aim for a respectable score of 65 on PR and PT. You can then make do with 55-60s on the rest of the essays—assuming you do well enough on the MBE to get a scaled score of at least 1390 (roughly 125 questions correct).

It doesn’t take a great answer to get a 55!

Here’s how many raw written points you need to be on track to pass—and why every 5-point increment gets you that much closer to passing the CBX.

Therefore, nailing the PR essay and the PT gives you more leeway on the rest of the essays on the California Bar Exam. The same is true if you nail the MBE. Although doing well on the MBE is not an “auto-pass” like some claim, it will still give you slack elsewhere.

I’ll show you how to do better on PR essays below.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you ignore everything else. These are just some ways to prioritize your focus. Better than obsessing over predictions at least (and getting mad when they actually leak).

The Tripod Approach to passing the California Bar Exam

Take the PR + PT approach above, and also be solid on the MBE subjects, which you should as it accounts for half your score and overlaps with the majority of the essays.

We now have three key components to a minimally effective approach to preparing for the California Bar Exam:

  • MBE: Takes up 50% of overall score and accounts for 3-4 of the subjects tested across the 5 essays.
  • PR essay: Takes up 1/7 of written score, or about 7% of overall score. Practically guaranteed to be tested.
  • Performance test: Takes up 2/7 of written score, or about 14% of overall score. Worth 2 essays over 1.5x of time allotted.

This is a three-prong approach that focuses on the MBE, PR, and PT in your bar preparation which accounts for over 70% of your overall score by stabilizing a few key areas that you know will be on the California Bar Exam.

You’re triaging portions of the exam based on their importance to your score.

Now that’s what I call a big win!

Since you KNOW these few concentrated areas will show up, you can make sure you stabilize these few key areas and then coast on the rest, while letting everyone else cry about predictions.

Put your hand down. Of course, I’m not suggesting you should ONLY focus on these leveraged areas. Focusing and putting importance on something doesn’t mean excluding other things. Please use your logic and common sense.

James leveraged this concept to pass the California Bar Exam despite the sheer overwhelm he faced as an Australian lawyer.

The coaching client I mentioned in the beginning just needs to get the PR and PT down solid (and keep up the MBE), and he is home free.

And you can do this, too!

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Preparing for the California Bar Exam with the Tripod Approach

Here’s how to prepare for each “leg” of the tripod:


Get one or more of these excellent resources:

(Pick just one of AdaptiBar or UWorld. Compare AdaptiBar and UWorld here.)

The past will guide your future. Most people find the questions on the MBE similar to the ones tested in the past. One person told me that he thinks they take old questions and just change the information.

There are only so many ways they can test you! They’re called fact PATTERNS for a reason.

Professional Responsibility Essay

PR is typically an open-ended racehorse essay (“What are L’s ethical obligations?”). Thus, focus on identifying as many relevant issues as possible. Punch the grader in the face with clearly identified issues and sub-issues rather than the nuances of the rules.

Performance Test (PT)

This is one area where quantity beats quality. You want to get exposed to a variety of PTs and know how to organize them and do them in time.

How can you improve on the performance test?

Common mistakes regarding the PT:

  • Letting the PT be a submarine missile that comes out of nowhere because you ignored it for weeks like that succulent you forgot about. It’s sometimes the reason people fail the exam.
  • Not finishing on time (my PT Toolkit suggests how to prevent this)

Lastly, you may want to consider doing the PT first in the afternoon session on Tuesday if you want to use your post-break brainpower on it first. (You may not be able to do reorder if you’re taking the exam remotely.)

Examples of Passing the Bar Exam Using the Tripod Approach

Here are some case studies of successful bar takers using the Tripod Approach:

All that said, don’t just blow off the other (CA-specific) subjects! This approach shifts your attention to cover the most predictable areas, but that alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the scores you need. This person just memorized Magicsheets for CA-only subjects and passed, though.

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