Top Ten Reasons why People Fail the Bar Exam. And, how you can pass your next bar exam!

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You were not worried enough.You got by in law school—maybe not the top 10%, but hey, you passed, so you thought you’d nail the bar exam. Many people you know (some not nearly as smart as you) passed their Bar exam so you thought, “It can’t be that tough.”    It was that tough.

The bar exam is a whole different ball game, physically and mentally, from law school finals. First off, it is two 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.  Get with the program. Word hard, really hard, now; relax when you pass. If you’re 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 exam two totally concentrated months of full time study.

  • You were too worried. You were filled with so much anxiety that you cannot relax enough to learn the material.

To pass the bar exam, 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. Slow down.  As you work toward success on your next bar exam, 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. 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.

  • You have not learned the law. Did you brief cases on your own in law school? All your cases 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 o.k. to admit that now. You can learn before it’s too late. But don’t set yourself up to fail. We all know that people can get by in law school, passing all their classes without really ever having the whole process of legal analysis click.

To pass the bar exam this next time around, do what it takes to learn everything thoroughly.  Be able to teach every testable concept to someone else, know it that well.

 

  • You were the Dreamer. You went beyond the scope of the fact patterns. You read into things. You assumed facts not in evidence.

Next bar exam, read slowly and force yourself to stay awake. Recall what you read, take notes, and then analyze them thoroughly. Stay away from 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.

  • You have weak reading comprehension skills. You really didn’t understand what you were reading. Either you were too nervous, trying to read too fast, or you had 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!

  • You are a Practicing Attorney in Another Jurisdiction. You were licensed to practice in another state, and trying to get licensed in a new state. You may have been practicing for years. You are 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.

It’s possible that you know too much, especially practical aspects of law. You think of too many realistic concerns and issues and get hung up on them. You need to pretend you are back in school. Think BIG issues, and write a complete analysis. And, stick to the fact pattern.  

This is not shorthand; you are not resolving a client’s problem on a bar exam essay question or an MBE. This is long hand. Give a complete analysis to prove your skills for the grader –demonstrating why the facts prove or disprove every element of every relevant rule.  You often get just as many points for showing why a plaintiff (or prosecutor) should not prevail on a bar exam as why another should prevail.

“Show the math.” In other words, make your reasoning explicit.  Write in step by step IRACs. 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 a simple and logical IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion), in short but complete plain English sentences.

  • You have poor typing skills and/or you write illegibly. 

If the bar exam graders can’t 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 are organized.  Present yourself on paper on your bar exam as you would in a job interview –as a competent, organized, clear-thinking and clear-sounding professional.

  • You didn’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 or only partially answered is enough to fail you. Practice every day, under timed conditions.  Practice with a big, easy-to-read analog clock. (Read rules for your jurisdictions about what types of clocks or watches you may bring into the exam.)  And practice with the device you will bring in to the  bar exam with you.

  • 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, and it is just fine.  Pass anyway; pass this next bar exam!

Many licensed lawyers do not practice law.  Getting your license does not obligate you to any kind of job, or life.  You don’t have to be an “unhappy stressed out lawyer.”  You can be and do anything you want.  Your law license will provide greater not fewer opportunities, in and outside of the law.  

If you are unsure about the career you want to pursue, put your doubts in a box until after you pass the Bar Exam.  Then research opportunities before accepting a law job. Don’t commit ahead of time to a job you are not ready to accept.  Know that there are enormous benefits to passing the bar exam and being licensed to practice even if you choose not to practice law.  And, after you take the bar exam (wholly focused on passing), meet with a trusted career advisor and think carefully about what you want. Read books on what successful people are doing with JDs.  Get informed, and keep every door open wide.  

  • You were simply unlucky last time. 

Some people do just have a bad day.  Family problems, physical accidents or other incidents happen just before or during bar exams.  Bar timing is rotten luck. If you are one of these people, just climb back on the saddle, and do it again. Pass this next bar exam.

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More info to help you pass the bar exam in Pass the Bar Exam: A Practical Guide to Achieving Academic & Professional Goals.  You will get there.  The next bar exam is yours to pass!

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About Sara Berman

Sara Berman, a graduate of the UCLA School of Law, is a pioneer in online legal education. Berman has been a law professor since 1998 and currently serves as the Director of Critical Skill and Academic Support Programs at Nova Southeastern’s Shepard Broad College of Law. Berman has lectured for bar reviews for more than two decades, preparing students for the substantive and skills portions of bar exams nationwide. Berman authored the ABA’s “Pass the Bar Exam: A Practical Guide to Achieving Academic and Professional Goals” as well as its companion teacher’s manual, and she has recently completed a second ABA title on the use of performance testing in law schools. With UCLA Law Professor Paul Bergman, Berman co-authored “The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System,” and “Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare and Try a Winning Case.” These primers on the civil and criminal justice systems, written initially for lay people, help law students develop practical skills necessary for employment readiness and for success on the performance test portion of the bar exam.

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