Ten Reasons Why People Fail the Bar Exam

Having taught thousands of people to pass the bar exam for, I can sometimes tell in a few moments of listening why someone failed the bar exam.  You can too, if you look candidly at the past, diagnose what went wrong, and commit to passing the bar exam next time around.

  1. You are not worried enough. You got by in law school.  You did not come to class prepared and you knew it, but you got lucky.  You passed all your classes, so you think you will get by now.  You say to yourself, “It can’t be that tough.  I know tons of stupid people who passed.”Wrong! It is that tough. And it is a whole different ball game, physically and mentally, from law school finals. First off, it is two or three full days, not a few hours. You will be exhausted, more tired than you’ve ever been in law school. Second, it is way more material than you’ve ever had to deal with on a single exam. Third, the anxiety level is much higher. People around you are terribly stressed out, and rightly so since so much of peoples’ future rides on that outcome.   So, what is your job?  Get with the program. Word hard, really hard, now.  Relax when you pass.  If you are working while studying, realize that you may not be able to do it all. Think about taking out a loan so you can give the Bar two totally concentrated months of full time study.
  2. You are too worried. You are filled with so much anxiety that you cannot relax enough to learn the material. You have a lot to study and you are right to be concerned, but you cannot absorb the law if you are completely stressed.Stop. Sleep more. Take breaks. Do deep relaxation and physical exercise. You cannot study effectively for 20 hours a day, and you don’t need to in order to pass. Just be diligent, disciplined and give it a good 6-10 hour day. Remember: slow and steady won the race.  Also, realize you are dealing with more material, more subjects, but the depth of analysis is not nearly as intense as a law school final or law review article. (Note, in a state like California, this is especially true on essay-only subjects. MBE subjects tend to be tested in more detail than subjects for which you only have to write an essay answer.)You are not trying to be Justice Holmes, or have your Bar Exam answers published in the Harvard Law Review. You just want to pass.
  3. You have not learned the law. Did you brief cases in law school? Do you really know and understand what a case is—what the difference is between a holding and dicta? Do you know what an easement is? Do you understand UCC Section 2207?If you don’t REALLY get it, it fine to admit that now. You can learn before it is too late. But do not set yourself up to fail. Do not pretend you know what you really do not.  The time is now to dig in and really learn.
  4. You are the Dreamer. You are going beyond the scope of the fact patterns. You read into things. You assume facts not in evidence.  What is your fix?  Read slowly and read every word of the fact pattern aloud, under your breath. Recall what you read, take notes, and then analyze them thoroughly. Stay away from “What ifs.”  Resist if you find yourself saying, “But what if the party were an adult?” If the facts say the party is a minor, work with that. Why bother with the “what ifs?” The party is a minor, period, end of story. Analyze the facts and the law accordingly.
  5. You have weak reading comprehension skills.You really don’t understand what you are reading. Either you are nervous, trying to read too fast, or you have not trained your reading skills thoroughly enough. The Bar Exam, like all standardized tests, is largely a test of reading comprehension. Your reading must be in top shape to pass.Do lots of practice tests and study the model answers. Figure out what you did wrong. Re-read instructions. Also, if you want a good exercise: try reading and summarizing in one to three sentences, all the articles in the opinion section of the newspaper each day—this will train your skills and keep you informed at the same time!
  6. You are a Practicing Attorney in Another Jurisdiction.You are licensed to practice in another state, and trying to get licensed in a new state. You may have been practicing for years. But, for some reason, you just can’t seem to pass this Bar. You may be angry at having to take the Exam in the first place; you are an attorney, after all. You are licensed. You have done your time. You shouldn’t be asked to have to take another test. It’s been a while since you were a student and you resent this imposition.You are also knowledgeable in the real world. But in some instances, you know too much. You think of too many practical issues and get hung up on them. You need to pretend you are back in school. Think BIG issues, and write a complete analysis. This is not shorthand to help you resolve a client’s problem. This is long hand. Give a complete analysis to prove your skills for the grader. “Show the math.”Also, lay off the jargon unless terms are used in the problem. Don’t use flashy terms to impress the grader; you won’t. Don’t use “heretofore,” “the party of the first part” “said party” or “said issue.” Just write out an IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion) in short but complete plain English sentences.
  7. You have poor writing or typing skills and present an illegible answer. If the graders cannot easily read what you wrote, they won’t. They will not assume you wrote the right things. They will not give you the benefit of the doubt.  Sloppy careless typing or writing with major mistakes in spelling and grammar can bias a grader.  Lawyers must be organized.  Present yourself on paper as you would in an interview: as a competent, organized, clear-thinking and clear-sounding professional.
  8. You don’t manage time well enough.You didn’t bring a clock with you to the Exam, or you didn’t look at the clock you had. Either way, time ran away without you. You were caught with moments to go and unanswered or barely answered questions. Even one question left unanswered is enough to fail you—especially if it’s a performance test question that is worth a big percentage of your total grade.  Practice, under timed conditions, with a big, easy-to-read clock.
  9. You are not ready to be a lawyer.Maybe you went straight from college to law school, and are still a little overwhelmed. You may not even know for sure if you want to be a lawyer, and you are certainly not ready to have someone else’s life or financial future in your hands. This is common. You can solve this issue creatively in a number of different ways, without having to fail the Bar. For example, decide before taking the Bar that you will give your yourself some time after you take and pass the Bar Exam before seeking or accepting a law job.  (Work doing something else for a bit to take the pressure off, and then decide it law is what you want.)  Don’t commit ahead of time to a job you are not ready to accept.
  10. You are simply unlucky. This does happen.  For real!  Some people do just have a bad day, family problems, physical accidents or other incidents that occur with the worst of bad timing.  If you are one of these people, just climb back on the saddle, and do it again.  This time the exam will be yours to pass!!

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