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The Bar Exam and Beyond

published February 19, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 22 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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Law school teaches you to read cases, spot issues, and make reasonable arguments about those issues. You are supposed to learn a way of thinking. The bar exam is just the opposite. You are being tested on what law you know. The other difference between law school and the bar exam is that in law school, grades matter. The bar exam is pass/fail. You can't learn everything, so don't waste your time. Just learn enough law so that you won't be a danger to the community.

The Bar Exam and Beyond

About the time you graduate from law school you will face the stunning realization that, having spent tens of thousands of dollars on a legal education, you have to shell out a few hundred more for the bar review course because you didn't learn half of what you were supposed to in law school. The reason for this is that most states want you to know their "black-letter law"-the actual statutes and judicial decisions of that state-before they'll give you a license. Most law schools-especially the national and regional law schools-want you to learn how to think like a lawyer rather than to memorize legal rules. In fact, the more prestigious the law school you attend, the less real law you're likely to learn.

The bar exam has two and in some states three components to it, as well as a separate ethics test. The "multi-state" exam is a standardized test used by all states. More ovals to blacken. Each state has its own state-specific test that can be multiple choice, essays, or a combination.

Unlike other standardized tests, the bar exam doesn't travel well. If you want to work in a particular state, you have to pass the bar exam for that state. If you later decide to move to another state, you'll have to take another bar exam. (Unless you've been practicing law long enough to "waive in" to the other state's bar-and some states won't let you waive in no matter how long you've practiced.) This is really no fun, so try to get it right the first time.

It might be possible to pass the bar exam without taking a bar exam prep course, but none of us know anyone who's actually done it. As a result, bar exam preparation is big business. As a third-year law student, you will be inundated with advertising for various review courses, each claiming to be the best. You will hear from classmates who have signed up (for pay) to be the class representative for different courses. Another source of marketing information. You will also hear lots of unofficial information about pass rates and differences in teaching materials of the study courses available in your state.

It does not matter very much which course you pick. Most of the established courses seem to do a good job of preparing students for the bar exam. One thing you should do, however, is to sign up for a course with a friend or two. Attending the bar exam prep lectures and taking the practice exams can be pretty depressing. It helps a lot to have a small support group to get through it together.

Too Late to Turn Back Now

Next there's the problem of getting a permanent job. For lots of you, this will be simple. You will do well at your summer position. They will like you. You will like them. They will be hiring that year. You will go back there. Happy ending - or at least happy beginning. For all too many law school grads, though, getting a job is a real struggle.

You don't have to envy third-year law students who haven't gotten a job offer. They must struggle through their last year of law school in intense competition for the few positions not filled by graduates of a firm's summer class. It almost becomes a vicious cycle. Employers may look askance at someone who hasn't gotten an offer at the end of a summer, even if the simple explanation is that the firm where he spent the summer is cutting back on its hiring. Is there something wrong with this guy? Why didn't he get an offer from that firm?

You can avoid this problem only with planning and luck. When you are considering where to spend the summer, look at the statistics for the number of offers made from the summer class in the past. (These are published by a group called NALP-the National Association for Law Placement-and will be available in your law school placement office.) When you interview, try to get a sense of the firm's future needs for associates. Go with a growing firm, not one that's cutting back. Listen to the grapevine. Talk to someone in the class ahead of you who worked at that firm the year before-your law school placement office probably keeps records. After all that, hope for the best.

Even excellent lawyers are sometimes just unlucky. When a firm falls on hard times, its lawyers pay the price. One partner at a litigation firm in New York recalls just such a spell of bad luck. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the Yale University Forestry and Law Schools, he went to work for a law firm in New York that simply folded. The market was flooded with lawyers at the time, which made finding another job difficult. "It was very upsetting and shocking when the firm collapsed. And it was a terrible time to be looking for work. When I didn't find a position with a firm right away, I signed on with a legal audit company. It seemed interesting and paid enough to keep the wolves away. Then I registered with Special Counsel, a temporary lawyer service. If a firm needs temporary help for a big project, they call the temporary agency, interview you, and hire you as a temporary attorney." Through Special Counsel, he got a temporary job at a leading New York firm. "I poured myself into it. They offered me a permanent position, and now I've made partner. In the end it worked out well, but it was a much more tortuous route than I expected. These days it's very hard for lawyers to get jobs."

You can help your chances of landing a permanent job by concentrating in areas of the law that are more likely to need lawyers in the future. These "hot" specialties, which vary by region, are charted by legal magazines and newspapers every year, because they are constantly changing. Over the past four or five years, for example, bankruptcy work has gone from boom to near bust. Corporate work seems to follow the business cycle. Litigation generally stays warm, if not hot, since people seem to sue each other in good times as well as bad.

If you use information about hot areas of practice in your job search, be careful how you present your interests to a prospective employer. You may find more job offerings in the hot areas, but you should be able to give a persuasive reason why you're interested in a particular area. If an employer gets the sense that you're interested in the hot areas because they're hot, you may look a little desperate.

In the end, perseverance pays off. Most law school grads get jobs within six months of graduation.

See the following articles for more information:

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published February 19, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 22 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.