The proliferation of large, brightly-colored workbooks around the Santa Clara campus means that Barbri season has begun. Many of my former Santa Clara students will be spending the next two months studying for the bar examination, and I suspect that most of these students will take the Barbri course to prepare for the test.
I’m a Barbri fan, though I concede that the program is awfully expensive. (Not that it matters, but last year a private equity fund run by Leeds Equity Partners purchased Barbri. There’s gold in them thar law-student anxiety.) I credit the course with having helped me pass the California bar exam back in 2001, even though I hadn’t taken several of the tested subjects in law school, and remained pretty clueless about a bunch of the subjects that I had taken.
At the same time, I wonder whether technological innovations have whittled away some of the program’s utility. It struck me that Barbri’s value lay, in large part, in its rigid structure. Every day, we students had to trudge to a particular place (usually a law school or, in my case, the Goleta Community Center), where we’d watch a speaker, or a video, for several hours. The speaker would help us fill in our workbooks (just like a third-grade Phonics lesson!), and that, plus lots and lots of supplemental studying, is how we’d familiarize ourselves with the material. Without this day-in, day-out routine, I doubt I would have been disciplined enough to study very much–especially during May and early June, when the bar exam still seemed so very far away.
Today, students can download these videos “on demand,” meaning that they don’t have to attend the lectures or screenings. I appreciate that students probably lobbied for this download feature, but I think it’s an awful idea. Had it existed back in 2001, I absolutely would have skipped a whole bunch of Barbri classes to go hiking or biking or eating or sleeping or something. I would have promised myself, each time, that I’d watch the video later. Which, in a few rare instances, I actually might–maybe while on the beach, or at a cafe, and in any event never, ever paying more than about 50 percent of my complete attention to the video.
Well, my students are probably much more disciplined than I was. To turn the page within this post, I have little useful advice for those of you who are studying for the bar examination right now. It’s a slog, and the last two weeks, in particular, involve a pretty awful sleep-panic studying-sleep cyclical routine. Personally, during the final countdown to the 2001 bar examination, I felt like a particularly hapless version of the Little Dutch Boy. Only I was trying to plug a seemingly infinite number of holes in my brain, instead of leaks in a dike. If I had to offer some simple advice or encouragement, it would be this:
1) Know what the exam tests. The bar exam is, in my opinion, only about 50 percent concerned with your nuanced knowledge of the substantive law. If you don’t believe me, look at the “model” answers to essay questions that the California Bar posts online, after each administration of the exam. Often, the two posted answers for each question will come to directly conflicting conclusions on key points of substantive law.
As much as it probes your knowledge of the law, the bar exam tests candidates’ writing, reading, and generic critical-thinking skills. This point applies in particular force to the exam’s “performance tests,” and also to the essay and multiple-choice portions of the examination. As for these essays and multiple-choice questions–and I know this sounds obvious, but still–you must must must read the questions and answers carefully, paying particular attention to the call of each question. The bar examiners are experts at things like subtly hiding double hearsay within an Evidence multiple-choice question. If you skim the question, or read it too quickly, or fail to consider all of the answer choices (remember, here, that you are looking for the “best,” not the “perfect,” answer), you’ll get it wrong.
2) Make life easy for your grader. Test-takers think that their exam answer will be the cynosure of their grader’s attention, even if only for a few minutes. Maybe, maybe not. Your grader very well may be watching TV, or playing shufflepuck, or doing something else while he or she marks up your answer. This likelihood means that you must make it as easy as possible for him or her to understand and follow your thought process. This general suggestion breaks down into several subpoints:
a. With your essay answers and performance test responses, especially, I seriously doubt that anyone can provide too much road-mapping at the outset of his or her answer, or too many headings or signal words (e.g., “first,” “second,” “third,” etc.) at the start of new paragraphs, consistent with the architecture laid out in your roadmap.
b. Likewise, avoid long paragraphs in your answers to essay questions and performance tests. Overly long paragraphs – especially overly long paragraphs that lack topic sentences – are a pet peeve of mine as a professor. My attention span is barely long enough to slog through a page-and-a-half-long paragraph. You’d better believe that the average bar-exam grader has even less patience, and less desire to mine a sea of text for the “right” answer. Short paragraphs–and here I’m thinking four or five crisp sentences, tops–are much more reader-friendly.
c. Don’t assume your graders know how smart you are. This point represents the flip side to Tip #2.b, above. With the additional time that your shortened paragraphs provide you, briefly touch upon and discuss some points that you think are obvious.
Almost everyone, as a writer, filters out stuff that they assume the reader already knows. Sometimes this is useful, but just as often, it creates problems–either because the reader doesn’t know this information, or because it doesn’t matter what the reader knows or doesn’t know–it matters what you, the writer, know, and put down on paper. The bar exam falls into the latter category. If you leave something off an exam, it’s dead to the grader, who doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve, and doesn’t know if you omitted the point because the answer is apodictic, or because you failed to identify the issue in the first place.
Here again, I encourage students who are taking the California bar exam to quickly skim a couple of questions and model answers to the test. As to any question, the common denominator isn’t that both model responses got the law entirely right, or entirely wrong. Instead, both of the commended answers usually respond to the questions that were asked, spot the key issues, provide the reader with a brief road-map or overview, do not assume that any issue is beneath discussion, and work through these issues in a methodical, reader-friendly (read: short paragraphs) manner. These model answers suggest that someone who exclusively focuses her studying on the substantive law, while overlooking how she’s going to present that information to the grader, is like a Hollywood movie studio that pays $200 million for special effects on a movie with a $5 script.
3. Finally, remember that any hardship associated with the bar is, in the end, a First World Problem. And that in taking the bar, and suffering while you study for it, you are just part of a long continuum. If you think it was easy to pass the bar a century ago, you might consider these bar outlines for 1903 (New York), 1910 (Illinois), and 1914 (also New York, and written by future judge Harold Medina). Just don’t consider them for too long; you have lots of studying to do.