Bar Exam Risk Factors — and Solutions

If you plan to take a bar exam in the coming year, including this summer, you should take some time now to assess yourself and what risk factors you may have that could put you at risk of not passing the bar on your first try. That sounds scary, but 1) there are many ways to address those risk factors, many students have done that successfully to beat the odds; and 2) you have plenty of time between now and the summer to address any risk factors if you start now.

The book I recommend that all students read, ideally starting in the summer after their 2L year, is “Pass the Bar!” by Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz. Here is a chart for self-assessment based on their list of risk factors and solutions:

Bar_Exam_Individual_Risk_Factors

Take a few minutes to read it over and ask yourself if any apply to you — they DO apply even to Emory Law students — then keep reading to find out how to neutralize them! Look for and attend our ongoing programs this semester that will help you ease into bar readiness. And feel free to visit with Dean Brokaw or Jennie Geada Fernandez to discuss how you can optimize your chances of success, starting with the MBE diagnostic exams and workshops we will hold starting this Saturday. If you are a graduating student, check your email or On The Docket for info and a registration link. The bar exam is not an aptitude test; it is an ATTITUDE test — you achieve success based on the effort you invest. Sweat equity. And that’s good news, because success is within reach of you all if you make the right choices. We’re here to help.

Bar Readiness Starts NOW

This post is meant for those of you who will graduate in the coming academic year (2017-18) and plan to take a bar exam. Many, but not all, of you are 2Ls going into your 3L year; some of you are LLM students.

As I wrote this last week, most of your friends and colleagues in the Class of 2017 were just finishing up their bar exams, finding out whether they were as ready as they had hoped and planned and worked to be. Sooner than you think, that will be you! Now is a great time for you to start thinking ahead to what you can do over the coming academic year to maximize your probability of success when you take a bar exam for the first time.

The book I highly recommend you buy and start reading NOW for overall bar readiness is “Pass The Bar!” by Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz. One of its first chapters is a set of “Action Plan Checklists” that begin 6-12 months before your post-graduation commercial bar review course starts. That window of time is now. Since many of you will file “character and fitness” applications to bar authorities this fall (they are due by early December in Georgia for those who will take the Georgia bar in July 2018), this is a great time to start getting familiar with the requirements for the jurisdiction where you will take the bar. More than half of all states now administer the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), but each state still has its own requirements and deadlines. Save yourself some stress and start getting to know them now. You may need to gather your own records to answer the detailed character and fitness questionnaires, so getting an early start on that is also helpful.

We will be doing a series of programs to support and inform you all year as you get closer to the bar exam. The first is usually the annual September visit of the Director of Bar Admissions for Georgia, who will explain the character and fitness process and answer questions in person. In the meantime, I hope you will read through the information here: http://law.emory.edu/academics/academic-engagement/index.html (scroll down to see Bar Readiness).

Enjoy the rest of your summer! We look forward to seeing you back here later this month.

Keeping Up … and Drawing for Critical Pass MBE Flashcards

Now that all the bar courses started a couple of weeks ago, it’s time for you to assess your own plan to do as much constructive study as possible between now and late July. Note that I said CONSTRUCTIVE study! Passive memorization or review of materials alone, no matter how many hours you spend on that or how little sleep you get, won’t get you across the finish line. Here is a great post from the Law School Academic Support Blog about two paths commonly taken by bar studiers right now, neither of which is particularly constructive or effective.

Let’s take a deeper look at the student the author calls Dwayne BarStudier:

The key piece of advice he has received is to strictly follow the bar review schedule and he is guaranteed to pass the bar exam. Dwayne is doing just that but gets sick over failing to complete some assignments and therefore stays up all night to complete them. He monitors his daily and weekly progress in completing his bar review program and is for the most part on task. However, Dwayne is unable to answer questions about basic elements and requirements for simple concepts and has significant difficulty issue spotting or starting an essay randomly selected from subjects recently covered in his bar review program. Dwayne is also unable to give a good broad overview or synopsis of major topics in any subject area thus far. He has not thought about what this means as he is simply following his bar review program. He may wish to think about what he is doing, be self-regulated about his process and not simply “do-to-do.”

Here is what Dwayne is doing right: 1) trying to strictly follow his bar review schedule and complete assignments; 2) monitoring his own daily and weekly progress toward completion; 3) staying on task.

Here is what Dwayne is NOT doing right: 1) he is depriving himself of sleep, a fatal error when it comes to the critical, analytical thinking and writing required to pass the bar; 2) he is not synthesizing the information he is reviewing so that he can produce correct, adequate responses, exactly what he has to do to pass the bar; 3) he is not assessing himself and his performance beyond the mere fact of having “done the homework.”

What should he, and you, be doing? Stay on track; complete assignments but especially all practice questions; assess your own performance on practice questions; get feedback; use your self-assessment and feedback to improve your actual performance on practice questions. And take care of yourself.

Yes, it is important to complete as much of the assigned work as you can, as soon as you can. Every bar course allows a student to compare his or her completion compared to what has been assigned, and what others in the course have completed. WARNING: the course averages include students who began the course but for whatever reason, have already decided they won’t finish it or take the bar. As a result, the coursewide completion average, in my view, is LOWER than where your completion rate should be. You should try to stay ahead of it most of the time, but don’t go crazy. Completion of assignments is an effective means to an end — bar passage — not the end itself. Being able to produce correct answers on the exam is the goal of all the work you’re doing, so make sure to do plenty of practice questions, both MBE and essay/MPT, regularly.

Staying ahead of the coursewide completion rate in most weeks is the only consideration you should give that information. As said about other BarStudiers described in the other blog, do not dwell too much on what other bar studiers are doing or blindly use whatever they are using. You must think deeply about what methods have always worked well for you to achieve academic success, and play to your strengths as you study and do practice questions, then ASSESS how you’re doing and whether those strategies are still working well for you, specifically as you prepare for the bar. Assess where you are making the same kinds of mistakes and figure out what to do about that. Some great information and templates for how to do exactly that are in Part Four of the book “Pass the Bar!” by Riebe and Schwartz.

Taking sensible care of yourself this month and next is essential. Rote memorization and cramming can undermine you on the bar exam. Yes, you need to know, and be able to retrieve quickly, specific information and black-letter law. But you will be required to take that and USE it in analytical fashion, including on the multiple choice questions. If you are sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and stressed by poor nutrition, anxiety, etc., analytical thinking is one of the first things most people lose in that situation, and you will undermine your own success. Sleep right. Eat right. Get a little exercise every day, even if it’s just walking. Drink plenty of water, and not too much coffee. Schedule some healthy down time. Get up and go to bed at the same times every day, and make those times mirror the timing of the exam itself (i.e., be awake and alert regularly at the time when you will go to the exam). All of this helps, trust me.

Do not develop a false self-confidence based on completion of tasks alone. Some students have expressed their belief that the bar exam is graded on a simple curve and they are confident they will do well if they are close to the statewide completion rate and the other bar-takers in their cohort go to a lower-ranked law school, for example. FALSE. MBE scores are scaled, not curved, and adjusted for year-to-year comparability, then the same scale is applied to essay scores. The only safe path is to prepare to overshoot the passing score. People who try to minimize effort and aim for the lowest passing score usually … fail. The MBE has been made more difficult in the last few years, including a statistically significant change for this year (more experimental questions that don’t count). Please don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to spend “too much” time studying.

Now, how can you get a set of free Critical Pass MBE flashcards?? I have a set of gently used, almost mint Critical Pass flashcards, kindly donated for this purpose by one of last year’s grads who used them and passed last July. If you take a screenshot of your completion progress chart (or however your course shows your progress) as of Friday, June 16, at 5 pm, you have done MORE than your course’s average completion rate, and you send that to me before midnight on 6/16, I will enter your name in a random drawing for the flashcards. Winner will be notified by email to your Emory Law email address by 6/23. You can enter even if you’re outside Atlanta; I will mail the set to you! Keep calm and carry on …

What You Can Do Over Spring Break …

to keep getting ready for the July bar exam. If you have the book “Pass the Bar!”, which I highly recommend, it has action checklists, including one for 4-6 months before your commercial bar review course starts. If you haven’t done the things on that checklist yet, spring break is a good time to catch up! If you haven’t decided where to take the bar, consider taking it in a UBE state, as those scores are portable. Both New York and DC are now UBE states, although Georgia is not. It is most important by now to have signed up for a course and started doing any preliminary work they offer. Most commercial courses will also let you switch between states where they offer a course, so ask about that.

Have a great spring break!

What to Do for the Next Seven Weeks

By now, you should have started your bar review course, whichever one you chose. Your best chances of success come from a steady routine of scheduled, systematic study and work, for 48-60 hours per week. That means 8-10 hour days, six days a week, starting now if you’re not already in that routine. Here’s what Profs. Michael Hunter Schwartz and Denise Riebe recommend for this stage, in their terrific book “Passing the Bar”:

  • Do at least 34 MBE practice questions every day, striving to get your timing down to less than two minutes per question;
  • Do at least two essay practice questions every week;
  • Do at least one MPT practice question every week if your state administers the MPT or another “performance” test;
  • Master doctrinal law for three subject areas (for the MBE plus the essay topics) every week;
  • Refresh your learning of at least two subject areas every week;
  • Take a ten-minute scheduled break every hour; take a break every evening if you’ve met your daily goals (and you should schedule daily goals for yourself every week to accomplish the practice questions above);
  • Take off one day/week if you’re up to date on your daily and weekly goals.

My additional advice: use all feedback mechanisms your course offers, including practice questions, practice tests, turning in essay question answers in time to get feedback, etc. The bar exam is harder than you may expect, but it rewards “sweat equity”, i.e. putting in the time as if studying is your fulltime job.

Also, get your brain and body used to being alert during the hours when you will take the bar exam. Now is the time to reset your body rhythms if you aren’t already a “morning person”. Establish the habit of getting up by 7 a.m. or so and getting to work on your bar study before 9 a.m. If your brain thinks it shouldn’t be awake until 11 a.m., why would it suddenly do so on the days of the bar exam, when you need it to be in top form? Try to go to sleep by midnight every night so you get a solid 7-8 hours of sleep nightly. More and more research is showing us that sleep (or lack of sleep) directly affects learning, retention and retrieval of information. Yes, I know it’s the summer, but you will have many other summers when you won’t be studying for a high stakes professional licensing exam, and there’s always August. This will be over sooner than you can imagine!

You Graduated. Now What?

Emory Law Commencement 2016 led by Professor Richard Freer, by Frank Chen.

Congratulations — you graduated and you earned a law degree! BUT … you don’t get to practice law until you pass the bar. Sooooo … it’s time to really focus on getting ready for success on the bar. Even before you start your bar review course (and start listening to Professor Freer again!), here are some suggested actions to take right now, from the excellent book “Pass the Bar”, by Riebe and Schwartz:

  1. Develop a written bar preparation schedule for yourself that includes:
    1. Time to review bar review outlines
    2. Time to attend bar review classes.
    3. Time to master or recall the substantive law.
    4. TIME TO DO PRACTICE QUESTIONS.
    5. Time for sleep, exercise and relaxation.
  2. Make sure you have sent all bar-related paperwork in by your state’s deadline: check here: National Conference of Bar Examiners. E.g., in Georgia you must file separately to take the exam, with separate paperwork, once you have been certified as eligible through the Character and Fitness process. Deadline to do so for the July bar is June 1!
  3. Contact all the people who are important to you, explain how crucial it is that you pass the bar exam and how much time it will take you to get ready, meaning you will be less available to them — i.e., at least fifty hours/week.
  4. Do at least one thing you enjoy that you won’t have time to do once your bar review course starts, until the end of the bar exam.
  5. Remind yourself frequently of your strengths and how they will help you pass the bar exam.
  6. Any other planning ahead you need to do for things like housing, meals, childcare, pet care, other obligations.

Stay in touch and let us know how it’s going! And congratulations again on your achievement in earning your law degree!

Photo: Frank Chen, 2016.

Bar Exam Risk Factors

A number of factors may put you at risk for not passing the bar exam. According to Professors Riebe and Schwartz, in their book “Pass the Bar!”, these include:

  • Low LSAT score, low law school GPA or low class rank
  • Not taking a bar review course
  • Low grades in bar-tested courses, or not having taken them
  • Working or other time commitments like caregiving during the weeks before the bar
  • Nontraditional student status
  • Life crisis or major life event (good or bad) when you are preparing for the bar
  • Record of weak test skills, in essay and/or multiple-choice format
  • Lack of realistic, effective study and exam-taking strategies
  • Excessive fear or anxiety

However, every one of these risk factors can be addressed by taking specific remedial actions, which are listed and discussed in the book. And as the authors note:

Although each of the factors puts students at risk, none of them prevents students from passing. Many students have several of these risk factors yet still pass their bar exams. The factors merely reflect common characteristics of students who have failed in the past. By being aware of the risk factors and acting to minimize their effects, you can increase your likelihood of passing your bar exam.

If one or more of these risk factors applies to you, please make sure to take full advantage of ALL opportunities to do practice questions and attend workshops to learn more and better test-taking strategies for the bar!

A Bar Readiness Action Checklist To Use Now!

If you are planning to take a bar exam this summer, you should be doing a few things NOW, even before you start a bar review course. Here’s an action checklist for Emory Law students, including in part some of the action items from a book I highly recommend: “Pass the Bar!”, by Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz:

  • Review the rules of the state where you plan to take the bar. For Georgia, go to the Office of Bar Admissions website, for other states go to their bar websites or start at www.ncbex.org.
  • Assess your own risk factors for not passing the bar exam on your first try. “Pass the Bar!” has a great list of risk factors, with suggested solutions for each of them.
  • Plan to attend all bar-related presentations and workshops offered at Emory Law this spring! They will include the visit of two bar examiners on February 29 (see last post), as well as “bar readiness” sessions with Emory Law faculty on each of the subjects tested on the MBE, and several full MBE workshops offered by major bar review companies, at no cost to students. Watch “On The Docket”, your email and the electronic boards for dates, times, details.
  • Plan your time: review and minimize or delegate as many time commitments as possible. Studying for the bar is a fulltime job.
  • Check your finances: plan ahead for living expenses while you study, or look into getting a bar loan.
  • Check your academics: compare the subjects tested in your state with your own law school record and decide if there are any subjects you should start studying before a formal bar review course.
  • Practice writing essay exam answers, using the practice questions posted on bar websites. They are actual bar exam essay questions and usually include sample answers.
  • Look at former MPT questions and answers to make sure you are familiar with the kinds of documents and practical skills you may have to use.
  • Get healthy and stay healthy! Wellness matters for success on the bar exam. Figure out now how you will keep stress and fatigue to a manageable level.
  • Research your options and register for a bar review course if you haven’t done so. Start using the materials they make available early.

Remember: a conservative estimate of the number of hours it takes to prepare to pass a bar exam on your first try is 600 hours. Use every opportunity this semester to put in some of those hours now.

Pass The Bar! Action Checklists and More

Two of the leading lights in law school academic assistance, Denise Riebe and Michael Hunter Schwartz, have a very helpful guidebook for law students called “Pass The Bar!“. It is a comprehensive guide to bar readiness, starting as early as 12 months before you start taking a bar review course after graduation. It includes action checklists, self-assessment tools, a decision grid to help you choose which commercial course to take, information about various aspects of bar exams, practice questions and sample answers, and appendices with all kinds of additional information and resources to help students get ready for this high-stakes test.

I highly recommend this book to all students who will graduate this spring, i.e. in six months. The very first action checklist covers the period 6-12 months before you start your post-graduation course, so now is a great time to get the book (available directly from Carolina Academic Press in hard copy or for Kindle, or from Amazon. com and other booksellers). Yes, you have exams coming up, but it’s important to start getting familiar with the skills you will need for success on the bar, while you still have one more semester in law school to address any deficits and strengthen them with help. Start working on that checklist now, and feel free to come ask anyone in the Office of Academic Engagement and Student Success if you have questions.