I will post one last time about the bar exam, and then put it behind me forever. I sincerely hope that I never have to take another one. I have gotten a lot of hits on this blog from searches for failing the bar exam, etc., so I thought I'd offer my small bits of wisdom, such as they are, regarding the test. I would especially like to be helpful for anyone who, like me, is forced to take a bar exam after practicing for many years, many years out of law school. I had little luck in finding others like me in the blogosphere, but I met several people in my boat at the actual bar exam, so I know I was not that unique.
I think we all have the idea that, in order to pass the bar, you must study full time for 2-3 months, foregoing virtually all other activities, complete an expensive bar review course like Barbri, and spend lots of time attending lectures etc. That is what most of us do the first time we take the bar, fresh from law school. Even as poor as I was after graduating from law school, and as much as I desperately needed money, it would not have occurred to me to work that summer. From the day after I graduated (NYU graduated very late then, just as Barbri started) until the day I took the bar, that was my primary focus. In fact, the summer I first took the bar was probably the longest I have ever gone without working for pay since I got my first job delivering pennysavers when I was about 14. The firm I would be joining in September gave me some kind of advance, and I think I borrowed money from a friend to get through the summer.
I did not have the luxury of studying full time for two months this time around. Far from it. I work full time, I have three young children, and a complicated life, with many responsibilities. My firm basically expected me to fit in studying for the bar without a drop in my billable hours. I honestly had planned to take the week before and the week of the bar exam off, and START studying at that point. That probably would not have been enough. Or maybe it would have, but I would have been a wreck. We went on vacation to London at the end of December/beginning of January, and right before we left, I ordered MicroMash. I had never even heard of it before, and had been planning, reluctantly, to sign up for Barbri, when my neighbor across the street told me about MicroMash. She also had taken the bar exam while working full time. MicroMash was perfect for me.
This is not a commercial for MicroMash by any means, but it is something to think about for people preparing for the bar while working. No lectures, all self-study. I think it is useful only for the MBE subjects, but in NJ that is all you really need. You can study a little in the morning, a little at lunch time, at night after the kids are in bed. You might think that you need incredible self-discipline to self-study, and I suppose to some degree it is true, but the way it is designed, not all that much discipline is required. I am a very UNdisciplined person in many ways, in fact, but MicroMash was perfect for me. You get outlines of the MBE subjects. A long, detailed one, and a shorter summary. You get software that you can install on two different computers. The software contains thousands of practice questions in every subject. You read the questions and answer them on your computer. The software keeps track of how long you are taking on each question, which is great practice if timing is an issue. You do the questions in set of 16, 18? I honestly forget. When you finish a set, it tells you what percentage you got right. You download that information over the internet, and it keeps track for you of what percentage of questions you've gotten right in that subject over the entire time you are studying, and after you've done enough questions, it starts testing you more heavily in those areas where you are weak. It will keep throwing questions that you've gotten wrong at you until you get them right. It also keeps track of what percentage of all available questions you've done in a particular subject. If you do all of the MicroMash questions, that will activate their pass guarantee, meaning, I think, that you will get updated materials for the next exam if you fail. Whoop-de-doo. It is not like the bar examiners are out there updating the questions based on the latest Supreme Court decision. Don't worry about the pass guarantee. You also get assigned a mentor to review and grade practice essays and to answer questions. I never used this.
Here's why I liked MicroMash. Before I read a single word of an outline, I did a set of questions in each subject. I got a reasonably high percentage of questions right. Not enough to pass, but not soooo far off. This gave me the confidence to feel that it was not hopeless, but I also realized that I shouldn't wait until the week before the bar to START studying, so I started doing a few hours each night in mid-January. I could see regular progress as I worked, with graphical displays of how I was doing. I could do work in very defined chunks -- a set of questions over lunch, a set before I went to bed, etc. What I liked best, though, was that, unlike practice PMBR or Barbri questions, you get immediate feedback. You agonize -- is it D, or C? You make your choice, and are told instantly which was the correct answer, and why. The answer might also include "exam alerts," some piece of wisdom on a particular issue related to the question you just answered that might come up on the exam. You could also click on many words in the answers for further explanations of that concept. I found that a much more efficient way to learn than doing 100 questions and then coming back at the end to grade them and reading the explanations of the answers, when I might already have forgotten the little nuance between C and D that caused me to struggle so much in the first place. I took copious notes while I was doing my questions of all the little tricks. Of course, you could set it up to give you testing conditions, and mix the subjects up to simulate an exam, but I never did that. Time was never my issue, so that wasn't necessary. And the program kept track of my average time per question and put everything on a little graph. I would work on one subject until I was getting at least 70% correct before I moved on to the next subject. This worked very well for me. I find "active" learning much more productive and efficient. Sitting in a lecture and listening to someone drone on about a subject is only so helpful for me. At some point, I had to really learn the material, I had to make sure I knew it. I simply didn't have time for lectures. Some people would have hated the type of studying I did. Some people NEED lectures, need a human being explaining something to them, they need a specific schedule to follow, they need to do EVERY practice essay and question. To me, following such a specific schedule required much more discipline and time than I had. My friend needed to do that, much to the firm's annoyance, but if you need to, you need to.
The key is to figure out what works for YOU. If you have been practicing for a long time, like I have, you will have a pretty good sense of yourself. Don't let anyone tell you how you SHOULD do it. A partner in my office passed without doing any practice MBE questions. I could never have done that; I thought they were too tricky.
I did not do a single practice essay all the way through. I wanted to; I don't advise skipping that step. But I figured that I know how to write, what I needed was to learn the law, and I was always enough behind on learning the law to miss my essay deadlines. I was learning the law until the day before the exam. I read a few released answers, which is most helpful in NJ in that they release real answers with no critiques, and the answers kind of suck, and have big mistakes in them, so gave me confidence that I didn't need to practice to spew out crap, I can do that already. It was my lack of practice on the essays, however, that gave me all the anxiety that I have had for the past 9 weeks or so. I didn't really know how to pace myself, and spent way too much time on the first essay, and ran out of time. I am not used to writing with a pen -- I type REALLY fast -- which slowed me down considerably, although I did make a point of writing a lot of notes to get the old writing muscles in shape. I just didn't know how to get points, didn't know if the mediocre crap I'd written would be enough, because I couldn't imagine that it would be. The hardest part for me was that I was not writing a memo for a real client, I wasn't trying to get an A. A D was fine. A memo that would constitute malpractice was perfect. I had no rational way to judge my own work. If I had done practice essays, that were actually graded, I think it would have been much less stressful. I'm still shocked that the crap that I wrote was good enough to pass. Although considering that I have not yet seen the official letter, maybe it wasn't.
I also did a 3 day PMBR class. That was marginally useful. It gave me a bit of a kick in the ass, because I didn't do very well on the simulated exam, and realized that I needed to study more than I had planned to. And it also gave me a little boost, to have other exam takers to talk to at least a little. The PMBR questions are scary hard, though, and for some people it just shakes their confidence too much. I got a few good exam taking tips out of the lectures, none of which I remember now, but they might have been worth the price of admission. If I ever dig out my notes, I'll add those tips to this post.
But my most important advice is -- don't make yourself crazy. It is just a test. I made myself too crazy. If I had found out that I failed, I would still be exactly the same person I am right now. If you are a first-time taker, I can tell you without hesitation that the skills required to be a great lawyer, and the skills required to pass the bar exam are entirely different. If you fail, it does not mean that you chose the wrong profession. Do not let it make you feel bad about yourself. In my experience, people do not fail because they are less intelligent or capable than people who pass. They fail because they didn't focus enough, didn't study efficiently enough, panicked, had a brain freeze, didn't take it seriously enough . . . . I've known some people who are incredibly smart who had to take the bar exam 3 times. The two people in particular that I am thinking of are both extremely successful 20 years later, and their multiple failures of the bar exam is an amusing anecdote. NO ONE holds it against them in any way.
But even though I'm done with the bar, I'm not done. NJ has the most onerous CLE requirements in the first six months after you get admitted it makes me want to cry. So I'm putting off my actual admission as long as I can, so I can put off ICLE as long as I can.
Anyone have any ICLE advice for me?
Edited to add: It is officially official. The letter came in the mail. I got a 158 on the MBE. That is about what I was hoping for, much better than my first bar exam, which was a 141. I was never really worried that I had not done well enough on the MBE to pass. My panic set in when I found out, AFTER the bar exam, that in NJ you have to pass each section of the exam independently, and you can't carry points over from one section to the other. I went in thinking that I only needed to get a combined total of 270 on the two halves of the exam, which, based on this score, would have meant I passed with an essay score of only 112. That is how it is in many states. In fact, in some states, the graders will not even read your essays if you get a high enough score on the MBE. But apparently in NJ, you have to get at least 135 scaled on each part of the exam. They don't tell you your essay score, but I have no doubt that I passed by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin.