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Perhaps no other exam has quite the mystique of the bar exam. It is the ultimate rite of passage for lawyers, an intellectual version of fraternity Hell Week, a tribal test of adulthood. The exam, which (in California) is 18 hours long and spread over three days, requires eight weeks of intensive review following three grueling years of law school. The bar exam is indeed something unique and more than a bit daunting, especially considering the surprisingly low passage rates of its highly educated takers. Nevertheless, with proper preparation and the right attitude, the bar exam need not be feared and can instead be considered just another necessary step in your legal career.
As a law student aspiring to become a lawyer, you should view the bar exam as another milestone among many (for example, the LSAT, acceptance at a law school, successful completion of first year, etc.). It is something to be aware of (but not to dwell on) and to confront and overcome at the appropriate time. While the test is certainly no pushover and requires intense preparation, it is not the monster some would have you believe.
One of the most important things you can remember about taking the bar is that everyone in your class statewide (and, in a more general sense, nationwide) is in the same boat. No one taking the test has any advantage except those which they create for themselves through proper preparation. As far as the Board of Examiners is concerned, when test time comes, all Juris Doctors stand equal before the bar with respect to the administration and grading of this anonymously taken exam. And when test time is over, all takers feel equally wiped out and unsuccessful, and all will have to wait for countless months to know whether their pens and pencils worked the necessary magic for them to become, at last, lawyers.
One of the most basic truths about the bar exam is that worrying about it will not help. Other than lining up an appropriate bar review course to take the summer following your graduation, you should not even think about the exam until that course starts. You have enough to worry about during law school without needlessly accelerating bar stress. You are in law school to learn not just specified subject matter, but an entirely new way of thinking and analyzing problems. The bar exam should not exercise an inordinate degree of power over your psyche or your study schedule. Do not even open a bar review book (unless out of curiosity or in search of help with a problem arising in the course of your other studies) until after you graduate and begin formal review.
In no event should you begin studying for the bar exam too early. Starting to study too far in advance is often a direct result of forgetting the most basic truth: You should not worry about the exam (or at least not before its time). Jumping the gun on bar study will lead to worrying and burnout, and you will not be able to retain what you read. It also will reduce or eliminate your precious leisure time for nonlaw activities and distract you from more important legal work as well (such as finishing your law review article, preparing for classes, outlining, or studying for midterms or finals).
One of us, as a second-year law student working assiduously to become a law review editor, witnessed a case in point. A third-year law student at his school began studying and reviewing for the bar exam (held in late July) in January. This student, although a law review editor and a seeming cinch to pass the bar but for his neurosis over the test, ended up flunking the exam the first time around despite his five-month jump on his classmates (the great majority of whom passed). Far from ensuring success, his behavior produced undue worry and anxiety and was otherwise unproductive.
Premature studiers are often excessive studiers; such study fanatics worsen their plight by not taking time out even to care for themselves or to remedy fatigue. Treat yourself well during bar study, making sure to get plenty of exercise and sleep. Do not work during this time unless absolutely necessary. Pamper and nurture yourself. If possible, take a vacation right after graduation for a week or so to clear your head and prepare yourself mentally for the arduous eight weeks of intensive review that lay ahead.
It is not easy to cram the most important parts of three years of law study into eight short weeks (which is why a formal review course is indispensable). If you want to be at your best, you need to be physically and mentally fit and fully alert. Think of yourself as a boxer preparing for a championship fight. While you must work long and hard, putting in every mile of roadwork and sparring every round, you must not overtrain. Skipping meals, losing sleep, and worrying excessively will render you vulnerable come fight day no matter how relentlessly you drive your body.
Assuming you have graduated, enrolled in a reputable bar review course (such as BarBri), regularly attended lectures, and studied in the right frame of mind, nothing should prevent you from giving your best performance on the exam, which will usually be more than enough to pass. Bar review courses combine massive written materials (including practice tests and outlines similar to the kind law school has already acquainted you with) with a series of videotaped (and sometimes live) lectures. The format is similar to that of law school-minus the Socratic element, of course. However, the range and pace of study are more intense and the level of analysis is by necessity more broadbrush. You will cover over a dozen major areas of law in a comprehensive (if not detailed) fashion in a mere eight weeks. Though this may seem daunting and may tempt you into making the fatal error of early study, do not succumb. Most or all of the material should be familiar from your law school curriculum, thus easing the burden and anxiety.