The Bar Taking Process: What You Need to Know
Taking the bar exam will be one of the most stressful events of your life. You just spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school and you believe all will be for naught if you do not pass this exam. Maybe, like my brother, you have a lucrative job lined up contingent on your passing. Or, maybe you have your own office or firm planned out and ready to launch - you just need that darn law license!
The time studying leading up to the bar exam can be just as stressful. If you were uncomfortable with a particular subject in law school, how in the world can you understand it this time around when the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Maybe you're frustrated because you can't grasp some of the material despite consistently studying for 12+ hours per day. Or, maybe you bought a bar prep program and took a simulated MBE two weeks before the actual bar exam and did poorly with little time to improve.
While you'll never entirely eliminate the stress that goes along with this grueling time, there are ways to alleviate some of the ancillary stresses involved. After successfully navigating the bar exam process in three different states, here is what I learned.
Before the Exam
The MPRE - the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) is a 60-question test. Ten of the questions are "test" questions for future exams and don't count towards a score, but students don't know which are the test questions and have to look to finish the full 60 questions because of that. You cannot become licensed until you pass this exam and many jurisdictions will not allow you to sit for the bar exam until you pass the MPRE. Check online for your jurisdiction's required passing score. Do not take this test for granted. I took it three times before I passed, despite performing well in my law school courses. Popular bar prep companies like Kaplan, Barbri, and Themis have free study programs for the MPRE - use them. After not using any study aids on my first two tries, I used Themis' program and passed easily.
As soon as you decide your jurisdiction and exam date (February or July), hop online to either your state's bar website or supreme court website to find pertinent information about the exam itself, applications and paperwork required before you can sit for the exam, and any additional requirements from your particular jurisdiction. Regardless of your jurisdiction, the application to sit for the bar exam is extremely comprehensive and you cannot complete it in one sitting. Print a blank application form out, review and begin gathering information as soon as possible. You will likely need 3-5 references from people you've known for a certain period of time that are not blood relatives. Longtime friends, past professors, and employers are all good reference candidates. Gather their full mailing addresses and alert them that they will be contacted by the State or the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) as part of your background check. Ask them to immediately fill out and return all correspondence so as to not delay processing of your application. You will also need to gather information stemming from all debts owed, bankruptcies, divorces, judgments and related dispositions (civil, criminal, or traffic). Disclose as much as you can - if these incidents occurred prior to law school, disclosing them will not prejudice your application as much as not disclosing them will. The NCBE conducts a THOROUGH background check and will see EVERYTHING - even if sealed, expunged or shredded. If certain documents were shredded due to court purging, for example, disclose that they were shredded and no longer exist. You may also need to get fingerprinted; check your jurisdictions requirements on that - they may only allow specific agencies to do so. Further, take note of all exam fees, applicable late fees, application fees, character and fitness fees, etc required and submit them all with your application. Each fee must be a separate cashier's check or money order properly labeled. Make a copy of your completed application to keep for your records before mailing. Mail the application certified/return receipt so you know that it was received.
You successfully conquered law school and at least 16 other years of education. Along the way, you experimented with different study methods and know which ones are successful for you. Keep it up. However, purchasing a commercial bar-prep course has become a necessity today to passing the bar. It's silly to spend all that money on law school and not invest an extra $1,500 or $2,000 on something that will exponentially increase your chances of passing the bar exam. Themis worked out well for me, as it allowed me to navigate the program at my convenience. I am not a very "structured" learner. Barbri and Kaplan are designed for more of a classroom experience, watching lectures and completing assignments at certain set times. Again, choose a program that corresponds to, and cultivates your study habits. I would suggest you try to complete at least 75 percent of the program. I liked to begin studying as soon as possible so I would not have to study for 12+ hours per day. In any event, I suggest you pace yourself to avoid burn out. Start slow, and increase studying time as you get further along. I even like to take breaks every hour, even if it was just walking around the house or library. Do not forsake stress relievers like spending time with your family and friends, going to the gym, or other hobbies to study. The material will be there when you get back. Studying for the bar exam is a marathon, not a sprint; you need the proper stamina to finish strong. This is what worked for me, but know what things work best for you.
Reserve a hotel room within a 15-minute drive to the exam venue. If the exam venue is in a hotel, do not stay at that same hotel; there will be a palpable, uncomfortable, nervous energy emanating from hundreds of bar examinees that you won't want any part of. If you can, find a small bed and breakfast or quaint motel. Air BnB and VRBO are good places to search. Arrange to arrive the night before; you do not want the added stress of traffic if you're coming from outside 15 minutes away. DO NOT CHEAP OUT ON LODGING. The first bar I took was the Feb '14 MI bar. As you can imagine, Februaries in Michigan are not warm. To try and save money, I stayed at a cheap motel with leaky doors and windows. The heater was set to 80 degrees and on full blast all night the temperature never got above 62 degrees in the room. A quality night sleep the night before the exam is essential and well worth the extra $10-$20 per night.
The day before the exam
- Cease studying - the Friday before the exam should be the last day you study. You will not learn anything new at that point. If you want to flip some flashcards to reinforce a few key terms, that's fine, but do not try to learn a new subject or concept. Relax and enjoy the weekend.
- Scout the venue - arrive at your lodging establishment the day before the exam. Make a mock run from your lodging establishment to the exam venue to ensure you know the exact route and about how long it will take. If you can, check out the exam center. Figure out where to park and how long it will take to walk from your parked car to the venue itself. Walk around the venue and learn where the bathrooms, vending machines, and water fountains are. Find out which room the exam is administered.
- Go to sleep early - As mentioned, a good night sleep the night before the exam is essential. Try to eat dinner around 6-6:30 PM and at least be in bed by 8 PM. No, I'm not kidding. Even if you do not fall asleep right away, just lying under the sheets and getting comfortable is a good start. Watch some tv to take your mind off the exam; perhaps a sporting event or your favorite movie. Do not take any drugs, alcohol, or other sleep aids; you want to wake up with a clear head.
- Breakfast - they say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that is especially true on exam days. Eat a hearty breakfast full of protein and vitamin C while avoiding sugary pastries or cereals. Drink tea or coffee but do not overdo the caffeine; you will be jittery enough and do not want to crash in the middle of an exam session.
- Arrive early - Get to the exam venue no less than half an hour before each exam session. Allow yourself time to check in, pass any security checkpoints, use the restroom or drinking fountain, and find your seat. Try not to use the bathroom less than 15 minutes prior to exam time; you will hear and smell things that could throw you off your game.
- Fight Club rule - Do not talk about the actual bar exam with ANYONE, including and especially other examinees, until you receive your results. You will second guess yourself because you heard someone give an answer that is different or sounds better than what you gave. Odds are, they are wrong anyway. If you brought ear plugs to the exam, the best times to wear them are actually between sessions to drown out chatter about exam questions.
- Conquer - You will never know more about substantive law than right now. In fact, you will not realize how much you know until you see a bunch of familiar questions on the exam. If you used a bar prep program, I found each bar exam easier than any of the practice exams. In fact, I got a 110 out of 200 on Themis' simulated MBE about two weeks before the MI bar and ended up with a score in the 80th percentile. If your program offers a simulated MBE, watch any lectures reviewing the questions; they are invaluable for a last minute understanding of concepts and examiner tricks.
The bar exam is a great equalizer. Despite ranking near the bottom of my Cooley graduating class, I passed exams that some Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, etc. graduates did not. There are certainly stresses and pressures associated with this process but you are about to become a lawyer so get used to it! Managing stress and channeling that nervous energy into positivity are some of the most important skills you'll learn between law school graduation and being sworn in as a practicing attorney a few months after you annihilate the bar exam. Good luck!
Cooley Law School graduate Michael Terner is an active graduate and a member of the law school's Alumni Outreach Committee. He supports recent graduates as a bar exam mentor and in giving practical advice for those on their own journey through law school and in practice. Read his blog called Success is not where you start, but where you finish.