Last November, I told you that there was nothing you needed to know about the bar exam until April 2018. Well, my friends, it is now April 2018, and it’s time to talk about the bar exam.
One of the worst things about the bar exam is that the law society gives you very little information to work with. There is no published pass/fail rate, so even the smartest and most diligent students can’t tell if they’re “prepared enough.”
To give 3Ls some guidance through this process, I’ve asked some of my friends – Claire, Erin, Jacquilynne, and Nadia – to share their experiences and answer some basic questions about the bar. All of us had different interest areas and different career goals, and we all passed.
What is the bar exam?
The bar exam consists of two seven-hour exams, held about two weeks apart. The barrister’s exam will test you on civil litigation, criminal procedure, public law (constitutional and administrative law), and family law. The solicitor’s exam will test you on real estate, wills, trusts, and estate administration, and business (corporate law, bankruptcy, and tax law). Both will test you on professional responsibility.
The bar exam is ostensibly the exam you write to show that you know the law to a degree that will justify your admission into the profession. In reality, the bar exam is about flipping pages as fast as you can. It is not an exercise in knowledge; it is an exercise in a very specific form of organization.
The Law Society will provide you with the study materials, but you will need to create or buy an index.
What are indexes, and do I need an indexing group?
Claire: You do need an index. But the materials come with a detailed table of contents that you can alphabetize with the help of a scanner that does text recognition, and a few hours of work in MS Word, which is what I did. It was a really helpful exercise, as the process of going through the headings and subheadings and putting them in alphabetical order made me more familiar with what was covered in the actual materials.
Erin: Yes, an index is a must. But an indexing group is not. I HIGHLY recommend considering purchasing an index. Updating an index with a group, even with the best of intentions, has a high probability of being a nightmare. I know what you’re thinking, “Erin, our group will be different!” It won’t. The only things I would suggest updating are cheat sheets (also called “charts”) that you will get from generations of test-takers past. They are invaluable time-savers and are worth taking the time to update.
Jacquilynne: You need an index. You do not need an indexing group. By updating a frankenindex patched together by generations of law students, you can save yourself $150 and end up with an inconsistent, hard to use index. Or you can spend the price of a single law school text book and buy a consistent index that someone else has already updated to match this year’s material. It’s a rare moment in life where laziness is the right answer. Be lazy.
Nadia: I bought an index—well, rather, I bought practice exams that came with “free” indices. I was originally going to annotate the table of contents that came with the materials, but after a few days, the process was taking too long so I splurged. I’m glad I did because I don’t think I could’ve managed the exams without the indices. The detailed table of contents is great (and I used it on a number of questions), but the exam tends to be extremely specific so being able to look up a keyword really helps. It was probably the best money I spent in law school, and the time I saved not having to update/create an index gave me extra time before the exam to relax.
Shannon: I joined an indexing group, and everyone was very dedicated, but I wish I had bought the index instead. Updating the index takes a LONG time and a LOT of work, and it was anxiety-inducing to have to do all this work before the real studying could actually begin. If I had to do it again, I’d do myself a favour and buy an index, and take like a week off before I started studying in earnest.
After you had your index, how did you study for the bar exam?
Claire: I basically just read through the materials and concentrated on the patterns in the content, not so much on the content itself. What I mean by that is that you don’t need to learn the details of vast swathes of law that are new to you. You just have to remember that scenario X means that you have to do…something. You don’t need to learn what the something is, because you can look it up. This is why spending a bit of time familiarizing yourself with the headings and subheadings in the detailed table of contents helps. Remember: that’s the tool that they gave you to help you find stuff, so that’s likely to be key to how they are going to assume you will find stuff when they’re writing the exam questions.
Erin: I read for about 8 hours a day. I had a very complicated highlighter system and I honestly think that it was mostly a waste of time. I don’t think however that it would necessarily be a waste of time for others. It really just depends on your own studying style and what will help you remember where material can be found. I had a set amount of pages I had to read everyday. If I missed the target for the day, I moved on to the beginning of the next section. I treated it like law school, if you miss a reading, it’s better to just move on to the next one instead of trying to get caught up.
I tabbed every 25 pages so I’d be able to find pages easily, and bound my indices separately from materials themselves so I could move between them quickly. On the last couple days I did practice exams. Looking back, I wonder if I would have felt better if I had spent a lot less time reading and lot more time doing practice problems. Doing practice problems was the only thing that helped me feel confident that I wouldn’t fail because it gave me a sense of how I was performing. Then again, I passed the first time, so who knows!
I took the afternoon before the exam off, I would recommend taking the whole day off though, or even a couple days. Your brain will be a huge pile of tired mush after all that studying, give it time to recuperate.
I know this is easier said than done, but don’t push yourself to understand what you’re reading. Focus more on where headings area, and trying to get a sense of how the material flows. Remember, the goal is to know where material is, not what the material means. Finally, for the love of McLachlin, skip the tax parts unless you genuinely enjoy tax law. Yes, there will be tax questions on the exam, but they will not determine whether you pass. Pick a letter and just use it for every tax problem, or do what I did and look at the numbers in the question, look at the numbers in the materials’ examples, and guesstimate.
Jacquilynne: I would say that I studied for the exam entirely inadequately, except I passed, so obviously I studied adequately enough. There are no grades, remember. You’re not trying to get an A, you just need to pass an exam that, anecdotally, almost no one fails.
If you’re naturally pretty good at multiple choice exams and looking stuff up, then reading the bar materials through once and highlighting enough stuff to ensure you’re paying attention and not just letting your eyes occasionally glance over the page while you actually watch Netflix is plenty of preparation. If you’re not naturally good at multiple choice exams, then I dunno, you should probably study more?
I will recommend developing a good system for tabbing your materials so you can find things. I tabbed my materials by page numbers, because that’s how my indexes were written — a tab that says ‘chapter 12’ isn’t much use if your index says ‘page 437’. I also tabbed my indexes by letter, because being able to find things quickly in your index is really the only thing that matters.
Nadia: I read through the materials as quickly as possible, which took me about eight weeks, reading about 6-7 hours a day, and taking most weekends off. After I was done I spent a few days before each exam doing practice exams and tabbing my index by letter. Some of the material is quite easy to read, especially if you are familiar with the area of law. Other parts are complete gobbledygook even if you have taken classes on the topic. It’s easier said than done, but try not to get bogged down in the gobbledygook as you won’t remember a word you’ve read by the time it’s all over anyway. If I had to give myself advice, I would have read (or skimmed) even faster and spent more time taking practice exams, reading the table of contents, and flipping through my indices. There were very few moments where I read a question on the exam and thought “I remember reading that!” But I used the index or the table of contents for every question.
This is complete heresy, but I did not highlight anything in the materials. I tried for the first bit but it did not work for me since I had no idea what was going to be relevant and I typically don’t use highlighters to study. That’s another good piece of advice: study the way you normally would, not the way other people do. If you are a highlighter user and have a good colour scheme in place, then by all means, turn your materials into a beautiful legal rainbow. If, like me, that doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t be afraid to leave the materials pristine.
Shannon: I read the materials through once, and then I did several practice exams. Count the number of pages you have to read and the number of days you have to study, and give yourself a few extra days to do practice exams and sort through the “cheat sheets,” which are documents inherited from previous generations that set out things like calculations and formulas and civ pro deadlines. They’re helpful to have, but they will also need to be updated to this year’s bar materials.
Try to take one day a week off. I think I studied for about eight hours a day, for about two months. It’s a long, long time to have to study, and I couldn’t have done any more. Some people will go crazy studying every waking moment. I am flat-out not capable of that, and I don’t think it’s helpful – especially because the test isn’t about retaining information, but about having the information usefully indexed and having a sense of how to find the information in an exam setting. Tip: start studying for the solicitor’s exam before the barrister’s exam is over: two weeks is not enough to study fully for the solicitor’s.
Use two different colours while studying: one colour to highlight important information, and another to highlight deadlines and dates. You probably don’t need more than two colours, though – that will get confusing fast.
Skip all corporate tax. It is too complicated a subject to be crammed into the bar materials, and the materials are poorly-written and they make the subject impenetrable. There will for sure be corporate tax questions on the bar, but there will only be a few of them. Skip them. It’s not worth the time spent agonizing over a few pages of material.
What was the day of the bar exam like?
Claire: Remember the LSAT? Follow the rules like you did for that. Make sure you’ve had enough rest. Actually, in the last few days, it’s probably better to rest than study, because the exam is so bloody long. You don’t want to fall asleep in it.
Also, I remember that there were a bunch of questions that didn’t seem to map directly to the study materials (nobody panic: I was pretty sleep-deprived at the time I was doing this). There was a point I remember thinking, “Pretty sure I’m just making educated guesses right now…” It was fine.
I didn’t actually use a timesheet, although I did some math in advance to figure out what time I would like to be at the halfway point, three-quarter point, etc. I did two passes of each exam. During the first one, I blasted through the questions as quickly as possible, and scrawled giant question marks in the question booklet beside anything I couldn’t answer quickly enough. Then I went back and attacked the question marks.
Erin: Good lord the examination days are a pain! Everything takes forever. Carefully read the rules about what you can bring, they are taken seriously. Don’t bring any papers you care about in your wallet, they will be taken from you.
Bring a timesheet and use it. Frequently compare what question you’re answering to the one you should be answering. If you can’t find an answer within the set amount of time, guess something, back a note, and move on. You’re better off having more time to answer the rest of the questions. Bring healthy food and eat it, your brain needs fuel.
Jacquilynne: They day of the bar exam is full of stupid bureaucracy. Read all the rules about what you are allowed to bring and follow them. They are not kidding even the slightest bit.
Bring a timing sheet. Just google it if you don’t know what a timing sheet is. They seemed like a dumb idea and I didn’t take one to the first exam, and I wasted a significant amount of time wondering if I was ahead or behind the pace I needed to finish on time. I took one to the second exam and instead of spending all that time wondering, I actually did finish on time.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t leave it blank. Pencil in a response, then write it down on a list to come back to later. If you don’t get back to it later, at least you have a one in four shot at the point.
Nadia: I think my overall feeling on both days was annoyance and fatigue more than anything. I remember my eyes hurting and my back being sore from sitting in the same position for so long. Actually it is pretty fitting it was in an airplane hanger because it’s sort of like going through an airport, although getting into the bar exam seating area took longer than going through security on my most recent international flight, and I had to throw out more stuff. I’m surprised they didn’t make us take off our shoes. Tip: they will look through your wallets and ask you to remove anything that is paper, so make sure to leave any important business cards and receipts at home.
After wasting way too much time on a few questions during the first exam, I made a rule for the second: if I could not find an answer in the materials after three keyword attempts, I would mark my best guess very lightly on the answer sheet and move on. For the most part I was able to go back and give these questions a second try, but when there wasn’t time, at least I already knew what to fill in. Definitely do not leave anything blank. And bring a timesheet.
Shannon: I found the day of the exam extremely anxiety-inducing. Packing hundreds of law students into an airport hangar is no fun for anyone. But by now you’re all experts at taking exams, and you know what you have to do to stay calm before an exam. Whatever makes you feel calm and focused, do that. Time sheets are super-helpful. Having done practice questions before the bar itself is also helpful. Don’t spend 5 minutes agonizing over one question: if you’ve spent 1 minute and 30 seconds on a question and are no closer to finding the answer, skip it. Time can get away from you, so be confident in knowing when to cut yourself off.
Are there any other suggestions?
Claire: I deferred the solicitor’s exam because after working and studying for the barrister’s exam, I didn’t feel as though I could cram for another seven-hour exam over a scant two-week period. And it was fine. I took the solicitor’s exam in November and it didn’t impact my ability to meet the early call deadlines or anything, although it did prolong the pain a bit.
Erin: Do fun things while studying for the bar. I went on a weekend trip to NYC with friends and while I kind of regretted it at the time, I think it was a good decision to get away and not think about the bar exam for a few days.
I said this above, but I’ll say it again, take at least the day before the exam off. It’s best to relax and let your big beautiful brain rest before you put it through the ringer.
One final note. Law school is all about setting up goals and pretending that if you don’t reach those goals, you’re a failure and won’t succeed as a lawyer. The bar exam is yet one more example of this horrible falsehood. People get Cs on their transcript and are fine. People don’t get a 2L summer job and are fine. People don’t get hired back after articling and are fine. People fail the bar exam and are fine. You are fine. You are going to be fine. I promise.
Nadia: Take a few days off before the exam and do something you enjoy. I went to a music festival the weekend before and have no regrets. And don’t play the “what did you get on question X” game when it’s over. There are literally a million questions and you are bound to get some wrong. Figuring out which questions those are will do nothing but make you feel terrible for no good reason at all.
Shannon: Moderate your facebook intake leading up to the exams. Facebook will be full of people comparing strategies and freaking out about not knowing the answer to question 49 and bragging about how they are studying for 17 hours a day, and you just do not need that anxiety. Eat green stuff. Stay hydrated. Go for beer with friends. You have to stay balanced. And if you fail, you can retake it. It’s fine.