So, in a couple of days, one of my best friends will take the bar exam. Bless her heart.
I can imagine some of you reading this are doing so because you are beyond freaked out, beyond stressed out. You have had at least one meltdown and you feel crazy. (Another one of my good friends had one in the mall when she took a study break and then couldn’t find her keys. Sat down on the floor in the middle of Belk and cried. See…you aren’t alone.) Your living space looks like this:
You think you can’t cram another tidbit of information into your brain, so you are Googling “what happens if you fail the bar exam,” or “ten tips for taking the bar exam,” or “how to cram for the bar exam at the last minute.” And, after reading all that Google provided on those topics, most of you have decided that you probably should make a bonfire with your Barbri books, tie yourself to a stake, and burn with them.
Don’t do it. It’s gonna be okay.
I don’t know if my story will depress you or help you whatsoever, but here it is:
I acknowledged in my first post on this blog that I am a Bar Exam Failure. Yep, that’s right. I failed the bar the first time I took it. Let me tell you why.
Most people in my life would excuse the fact that I didn’t pass on the first try because I was running for office at the same time I was attempting to study for the bar. Here is my timeline: March: qualified to run for Justice Court Judge. April: started preparing for exams and began setting up all of my online campaign sources with the help and instruction of my campaign manager, Thomas. Ordered signs, had photos taken, started making lists. May: graduated from law school, watched a bunch of Barbri lectures online, began walking neighborhoods every Saturday, and Thomas deserted me to be a camp counselor (I forgive you.) June: full-fledge election mode; semi-studying for bar, pawning off my child on anyone who would take him, even for just 5 minutes. July: Mostly studying for bar, but signed my name 4,000 times to letters to constituents. Thomas came home and took over the election side of life, thank the Lord. Took bar on my birthday (happy birthday to me) and the two days after. August: My primary. Allowed to progress to run-off. Run-off: won election and swiftly got a plane to Key West.
But they were wrong. Sweet, but wrong. Yes, my life last summer was busy. But here is what I learned, and what I know led me to fail the bar rather than having so much on my plate:
a) I didn’t understand the major tenants of most of the subjects that were going to be tested on the bar before I started studying for the bar, and my attention was so divided that I didn’t ever get a good grasp of that vital information early in my bar prep. (Translation: I didn’t study hard enough in law school). So, if you didn’t study hard in law school either, and not because you were so stinking brilliant that you didn’t have to, you can NOT be me if you studied hard during your bar prep.
b) I didn’t use the time I had wisely, and I didn’t do nearly enough MBE questions. My professor told us that we needed to work somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 MBE’s, and at minimum, 2500. I don’t think I even did 1,000. Big mistake. Huge. And let me say this: I didn’t work any Kaplan MBE questions….I was completely loyal to Barbri…and many folks said they thought the questions were more similar to the Kaplan samples than the Barbri samples. However, no matter what method they followed, when we got out of the morning session of the MBE day, every single person I saw had eyes as big as saucers and every person that I saw had no idea what had just happened. Cussing was rampant. Big, bad cuss words, from people I’d never heard cuss before. And I talked to not one, single, solitary person who said, “Oh yeah, I aced that part.” So here is the good news: if anyone around you says they thought the MBE was easy greasy, you will have everyone’s permission to knock them flat out. Either they are lying or they are delusional, because even my smartest of smart friends said they had no idea how they did on the MBE. And there is no way to check your answers. The MBE questions on the bar are not in the Barbri books or in the Kaplan books or anywhere else in the universe except on the bar exam. So don’t believe them and don’t worry about it. After all is said and done, you can’t do anything about it anyway.
c) I thought the MPT was a gimme, and I didn’t take it seriously. If you are reading this at ANY time before you take your bar exam, listen up. Scrap whatever you are planning to do between now and test time and get your MPT book out. Open it to a random case file and question set. Do not attempt to time yourself. Read it from front to back. Try to answer it. And then, thoroughly, read the model answer. When you only get 20% of the model answer correct, don’t drive to the nearest bridge and jump off. Realize that the model answer would take hours to construct. Instead, go back and outline how they broke down the answer. Look at the system to the answer. Really concentrate on it. And then do at least two more. It should take you an entire morning or afternoon, but if you have totally ignored the MPT, don’t. It is 15% of your entire, overall test. The MEE’s…all 6 of them….make up 15% of your entire test. I wish I could scream it through a bullhorn to you, dear-reader-and-bar-examinee. PRACTICE SOME MPT’s BEFORE YOU TAKE YOUR TEST!!! There really is a method to the madness and any sort of strategy before you get in there is going to help you. Yes, it is plumb stupid. There is no reason why the MPT should be part of the bar exam. Yes, it is boring. Your brain is swirling with facts, and you can’t use any, not a one of them, on that part of the test. Yes, it is long, and you need your time on it in order to give a full answer. BUT IT IS 15% OF YOUR OVERALL GRADE!! Grab those points. Don’t be like me and not open the MPT book until the night before the test, skim a few pages, and think you’ve got it down just because you took Legal Writing. Be smarter than me. Work some problems. You have time. I’m not kidding. Put down your MBE questions, MEE and MSE workbooks, outlines and notecards. Open the MPT. Spend some time there. You will NOT regret it.
d) I flat didn’t study enough. No matter what the excuse. No matter what the issue. No matter how bad things are at home, no matter how tired you are, no matter if you are trying to juggle work and studying, children and studying, life in general and studying, going through a divorce, spent some time in the hospital….no matter if you are running in an election. The bar exam takes no prisoners. If you don’t think you studied enough, you probably didn’t. And taking it the next go round is not nearly as bad as it seems today. Your world is not going to fall apart. Life is not over. But it is better to go in knowing you didn’t study enough and doing the very best you can than thinking that you studied enough and completely freaking out if you find out that you didn’t pass.
Because failing it truly is NOT the end of the world. It may seem like it at the time. Believe me, I realize that. You feel dumb. So many people have told you, “You are smart; you will pass the bar.” Well, let me clue those folks in. Again…sweet, but wrong. It is not a matter of how smart you are. When you have the volumes and volumes of information that you think you have to know before you take that monster of a test, there is no way to learn it all. Sometimes it comes down to the questions they choose to ask. If you interned for a District Attorney, and they ask a question about criminal law or criminal procedure, you are in luck. If you did your writing requirement on the newest Supreme Court decision that involves the Commerce Clause, and the Con Law question on the bar centers on…gasp!…the Commerce Clause…..you don’t have to worry about recalling every sentence of the model answer. You can write your answer from actual (researched) knowledge. And if you happened to work for an attorney before you came to law school who made you draw up contract after contract and then, lo and behold, the contracts question is about contract formation…get on your knees and be thankful. But the likelihood that you are going to know all of the answers to every question on the bar, no matter how smart you are, is miniscule. So it is not about how smart you are. I am hopeful you won’t let failing a test define you.
Passing or failing the bar exam one time or more than one time does not determine what kind of attorney you will be, and more people than you can imagine failed it once or twice. You absolutely can’t worry about “what it looks like.” The worst part about it, obviously, is that not having a bar card will delay the start of your career….but not completely. In my case, I was lucky beyond measure. Before taking the bar, I had already talked to two attorneys who shared office space and who wanted me to come work with them. Even after failing the bar the first time, they still wanted me to work with them. 9 times out of 10, you will find that to be the case. Small firms especially want to hire you because of your personality and work ethic. It is not because you are a legal eagle…no one who just graduates from law school knows what they are doing when they start practicing, and everyone needs some type of mentor…or at least some amazing secretaries who are willing to pull sample documents when said mentor gives you an assignment and you have no idea where to start. So if you don’t pass but have already talked to someone about a job, don’t think they are going to kick you out on your behind when they hear the news. I was able to still do the paperwork for all of the types of cases I am working now without a license to practice law, because the attorneys who wanted to hire me knew that I was capable of learning, and that I wanted to learn.
I know what you are thinking: “I didn’t go to law school to be a paralegal; I went to law school to be a lawyer.” So you did. But what everyone has told you: Law school doesn’t prepare you for the bar exam, and the bar exam doesn’t prepare you for practicing law is true. Having some time between finding out you didn’t pass and starting to study again can actually be a Godsend. Because I didn’t pass the first time, I actually got a head start before I could practice on my own. I’d already met with clients. I’d already drafted motions and pleadings and complaints and summons and discovery answers and contracts. I went to court. I learned what to do when it is time to file something. I formed relationships with the court staff. In other words, I got a whole lot of practical knowledge….everything that ISN’T on the bar but is much more important in the actual practice of law. I just couldn’t put my name on anything, and I couldn’t argue in front of the judge. So, if you find out you fail this go round, get your loans deferred and start talking to practicing attorneys.
Now, here is what has to happen once you get over the initial depression of knowing you have to do it all over again and you finally find the energy to pull out your Barbri books. Look closely at how you studied the first time, see where you were deficient, and then have the courage to change your strategy. In my case, yes, time was a huge factor. When you are running in an election, there are things that can’t be done and can’t be decided by anyone but you….even if you have a Thomas and a support system that never said no, like I did. But at the same time, if you are crunched for time, you still have to have a plan. I didn’t. So my advice for the second time around is this: get one.
I changed my entire plan of attack when I took the bar in February (and I will say, I still had time problems. I won the election, so I was on the bench for a full week out of the months of January and February…and I took the bar at the end of February. Not much got accomplished during those two weeks. I had to make up for it. You may be doing work for that attorney you talked to. He or she will understand that in the two months before you retake the bar, studying, not working, comes first. Remember: he/she wants you to pass.) But I also realized, after paying $75.00 to see my answers to my own essays, where I had gone wrong. I saw that my weak point was then, and would probably continue to be, the MBE. So I transferred my low score and decided I would make it up on the essays, because I was going to figure out how to do better. I don’t know if it was the smartest strategy, but it was what I decided to do, and I stuck to it.
I also took my professor’s advice, the same advice I gave you above, and spent time on the MPT. I spend a lot of time on the MPT. I wasn’t going to let those gimme points slip through my fingers the second time around.
As far as the essays were concerned, everyone learns differently. For me, I found it helpful to read the essays out loud into a tape recorder, even if there were duplicate answers. I kept the recorder in my car, and if I was just going to the grocery store 5 minutes away, I pushed play and made myself listen to my own voice repeat the answers to the essay questions. It paid off, for certain, on one of them. Our February bar domestic relations question was a repeat, and if I didn’t get 98 points out of 100, I’d be surprised, because I wrote down the model answer…because I had heard it a zillion times.
I also went through those essays and identified the issues in each question. I then wrote out the issue at the top of a piece of paper and left a space, copied the stack of them, and answered them by hand a few times. Example: If there was a question about divorce, I wrote the question, “What are the grounds for divorce?” and then I wrote out the answer. If I got it wrong, I did it again and again. You may use note cards for that type of learning. I hated note cards. Whatever works for you.
I put all of my focus into studying the past essays, and I concentrated my studies on issues that had been tested before. I knew I was leaving things out, but if you figure out one thing, it should be this: You can’t know everything that will be on the bar exam. It is impossible (unless you are genius-person, in which case, you probably aren’t reading this anyway.) So realize that, and study the topics that have the most likelihood of being on the bar. Know going in that there will be at least one question that you know very little about, and sub-parts to others that you aren’t sure how to answer. The best thing you can do is at least identify the issue of those questions and write something, anything. Try not to worry about whether or not you got the answer right. Approach it like you would a law school exam. If, this….then, that. Even if you have to dance around the issue, write something about anything related to the topic. Use terms of art. You will most likely pick up some points. Don’t leave it blank. Don’t freeze. And don’t spend so much time on trying to figure out how to answer a question you don’t know the answer to that you get off your schedule….because managing your time on the bar is super important, and you need it on the MPT. 😉
The night I got on the website to retrieve my score for the February test, I waited an hour and a half after I knew they were available before I looked. I didn’t want to know. It was hard enough the first time, and though I knew I could and would take it again if I failed, I was terrified. And when I saw that PASS by my four digit number that identified me as me, I cried. I cried for over an hour. I checked and rechecked to make sure I hadn’t misread it. Two of my friends who were with me for moral support held my hands while I prayed through my tears, thanking God for good news. I was a basket case…and I passed.
Failing the bar was the most humbling experience of my life. As I have said many times, if I had won the election AND passed the bar, I don’t think my head would have fit through my front door. So for me, failing it was a lesson in what I really could expect from myself. Last summer, I expected entirely too much. I was not able to be a wife, mother, friend, daughter, bar examinee and candidate and succeed at all of them. Something had to give. I’m certain my husband and son would tell you I failed the wife and mother part. Winning the election was surprising and validating. But failing the bar…well, I won’t tell you I wasn’t disappointed, upset, frustrated and mad. But I really did understand why. I didn’t prepare well at all. I didn’t have a plan. I had not figured out a strategy. It was my fault.
So, as the bar is only a couple of days away for all of my Mississippi friends and many others around the country, I hope you will take away from reading this that a) you still have time to study for the MPT and you should, b) you have a very good chance of passing the bar if you did studied and studied hard, c) if you don’t pass the first time, you are not a failure; you have just joined the ranks of people like John F. Kennedy, Jr., Hilary Clinton, and…me. And d) no matter if you pass or fail, as soon as the bar exam is over and you can form complete sentences again, get out the ole credit card (you are already in so much debt you can’t see straight; adding a tad more to the pile isn’t going to kill you) and book a trip. High tail it out-of-town. Throw some flip-flops and a bathing suit in a bag and skedaddle. Go by yourself or with someone else, as long as that person did not take the bar exam with you (because, invariably, as many times as you pinky swear that you won’t discuss the bar, you will, in fact, discuss the bar.) And do not, no matter what, pack a book that remotely deals with the law. Not even a novel. If you (like me) actually relax by reading, grab a stack of magazines (and the ABA Journal should not be one of them. I’m thinking US Weekly.) Your homework from this girl is to do anything that will allow you not to think about the bar.
And last, but not least, good luck. I’ll be praying for all of you in the next few days.
And MA, in the ocean of life, it is just a spit. You got this.
If you have taken the bar exam and passed or failed it, I’d love for you to add your comments.
~~~~Also, be sure to check out my links for blogs written by some of my law school friends and add them to your favorites.~~~~~