The Dreaded Bar Exam – A “Rite of Passage” into the Profession

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This week anxious law school graduates will take the bar examination with the hopes of becoming licensed attorneys and finally being able to reap the fruits of their labor. Although the test makes many law students feel like they are David battling Goliath, the bar exam is a "rite of passage" that all attorneys have had to overcome in order to practice law. According to the American Bar Association (the "ABA"), there are over 1.2 million licensed attorneys in the United States. Each and every one of those attorneys had to endure and survive the bar exam.

Certainly there are many gripes about the bar exam, such as the rhetorical, "Why do I have to go through this?" variety. A more serious complaint is that the exam is parceled at the state level, when so many other professions have dropped local standards in favor of universal testing. Such a test in law could be the Uniform Bar Exam. Such an exam would let a lawyer practice in any state he chose, rather than being tied down to one state, with inconvenient procedures to take a new test, often costing $1,000 in fees.



Not all states favor the Uniform Bar Exam, despite the fact most states derive at least half of their questions from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. So far 14 states allow students to take a UBE exam composed entirely of such questions, with the second step being the completion of another test in the state of their choice concerning local laws. Considering how mobile the 21st century has become, and how often lawyers transfer from job to job, and state to state, something along these lines seems inevitable for the Bar Exam.

Currently not all bar exams are created equal. Each state has its own testing configuration. The ABA reports that the most common testing configuration consists of a two-day bar examination, one day of which is devoted to the Multi-state Bar Examination (MBE), a standardized multiple choice exam testing Torts, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Real Property, Criminal Law and Evidence. The second day of testing is typically comprised of testing state specific subject matters through essay writing. A growing number of states are now utilizing two nationally developed tests, the Multi-state Essay Examination (MEE) and the Multi-state Performance Test (MPT). Unfortunately for those who want to practice law in California, the bar exam in California is a grueling three day, 18 hour bar examination.

California and New York are notorious for having the most difficult bar exams in the nation. However, Robert Anders, a professor at the Pepperdine School of Law, calculated the difficulty of the exam not only by the bar passage rates, but also including consideration for the average LSAT grade going in. He determined that the most difficult bars, ranked from hardest first in descending order, are California, Arkansas, Washington, Louisiana, Nevada, Virginia, Oregon, West Virginia, Vermont, and Maryland, with New York making it only at twelfth. The least difficult exam of all was South Dakota's according to Anders' study.

State by state, the highest passers of the exam in 2013 were Iowa at 93 percent, South Dakota at 91 percent, Wisconsin at 90 percent and Kansas at 89 percent. Louisiana held the lowest passing rate at 59 percent. So overall, most people pass the exam. Thus, if you've are able to survive law school, you're likely to succeed on these bar exams.

A more accurate predictor of your likelihood to pass is to consider the passing rate of your school. For the February 2014 exam, first time test takers at Texas Tech's School of Law ranked 91.67 percent, the highest in the state of Texas. A 2009 ranking found that the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marquette University sported a 100 percent passage rate, with Baylor trailing at 98.5, followed by Vanderbilt University at 97.8 percent, the University of Chicago at 97.7 percent, the University of Alabama at 97.2 percent, Harvard at 97.1 percent, and Duke at 97 percent.

Although the exam is a moment of importance you are likely to remember for the rest of your life, some attorneys remember the exam for stranger reasons. In 2008, an earthquake in California disrupted an exam, but did not dissuade test takers from charging right on through. Two years later, one exam taker in California came to the exam dressed as the red and white shirted Waldo from "Where's Waldo."One woman in Illinois even took to the 2011 bar exam nine-months pregnant. Apparently that was a big day for her, because she had to leave the exam after thirty minutes to attend more pressing matters. In Virginia test-takers witnessed a man having a seizure during the 2012 exam: yet they kept plugging away at the exam without much consternation.

If you are taking the bar exam this week, you are prepped and ready, fueled by grueling study, after years of law school prep, and perhaps a much longer determination to practice law. With such a strong surge in the direction of your ambition, consider success to be inevitable.

The week of the exam is not the time to learn new material or to attempt to establish any new skills. The short-term memory holds information at the most for two weeks, but more like one week, so now's the time to cram a bit of info in your brain. Memorize essay approaches to the subjects and get down the details on the law. You will want to have honed your skills in writing essays, and taken a practice exam by now, and it is not the time to make up for that now. Instead, take some time to review, but in a disciplined matter that does not at all interfere with your physical or mental health.

This last time before the exam is when you should avoid a doctor's visit, where you could get some bad news; it is time to avoid discussing deep issues in your romantic relationship; it is time to push from your head your previous failures. Though you might be worried and might reflect on your failures, gently tug your mind to focus on your successes. By focusing on your successes, you will mentally and physically take the winner's stance.

You should be exercising more than you normally do, sapping up that nervous energy, but not overdoing it. After all, you want to be alert and relaxed during the exam, not exhausted and recovering from a work out.

If you are night person, you will want to adjust your schedule before the day of the exam so that you are not tired when you show up for testing.

Studies show that we tend to worry about an issue until we've planned for it. Once we are satisfied with our plan, we drop the matter. Use this insight to plan your test day, hour by hour. Visit the test site a few days in advance, maybe a few times, so that there is no anxiety about finding the place on the day of your exam.

Cut as much sugar and caffeine out of your diet during the week of your exam, as these are crash and burn substances that aren't useful for marathon tests such as the bar exam. On the day of your test, have a balanced breakfast, and plan a balanced lunch.

Don't experiment on the test day. Don't drink a lot of coffee, or sleep in an especially irregular way, or anything like this. Things might go badly: stick to routines you are sure of.

During the exam you might get discouraged about your performance and doubt yourself. Instead of letting your mind drift in this direction, focus on positive things, such as your career as a lawyer; or say mantras, positive affirmations, or, if you are pious, a prayer.

If you find yourself getting anxious, you can immediately relax your body by doing some deep breathing. Practice this in advance. These deep breaths have been used by Eastern meditation for centuries, and it doesn't take much discipline to learn how to do it. Simply take some deep breaths by using your diaphragm instead of your chest or shoulders to inhale. Most of the oxygen in your lungs is absorbed by the bottom third of your lung, yet when we get nervous we often start to pant and breathe shallow breaths. If you take a few deep breaths with your diaphragm, not moving your chest or shoulders, but letting your stomach go far out, you will be oxygenating your blood. Close your eyes and focus entirely on how the breath feels, how the air feels moving in and out of you. By focusing only on this, you will be giving your mind a chance to relax: the results can be surprisingly drastic considering how easy it is to do.

As you probably already know, you want to outline your essay questions before writing them; you want to make them easy to read, with headers; you want to follow the instructions carefully, not improvising or doing it better than requested, as those grading the test might disagree with you. Remember to hold a confident tone; certainly don't confess you are ignorant or have no clue on how to answer any part of the question. If you really are at a loss for how to answer a question, you can at least fake it.

Having prepared your plan, and having found a way to manage your emotions and keep focused, remember, once again, to have the day planned, how you are getting to the testing center, what time you will leave, what time you will arrive -- and make sure it is early, give yourself plenty of time. It is far better to be a smidge too early than a smidge too late. Plan on what you intend to bring with you, and try to keep it to a minimum: simplicity's best.

Of course get a full night's sleep before the exam, and absolutely don't try to cram for it or overdo it just before the exam. You will want to taper off the studying, in fact, and let your mind relax a bit before the big exertion. On the morning of the exam, when you are trying to warm up your mind a bit, you might try picking some MBE choices or write a little.

There is a tendency among law students, who have spent months studying rigorously and becoming physically and mentally exhausted preparing for the test, to place the weight of the world on their shoulders. In a legal job market that is improving steadily, but is still not optimal, coupled with the inevitable prospect of paying back tens (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars in student loans, passing the bar exam often seems like it's life or death. In addition, many view not passing the bar exam as a failure of monumental proportions that stands to override or tarnish all of the hard-work, life experience, and dedication that has characterized their journey towards becoming an attorney.

Test-takers should nevertheless take some consolation that failing the exam is not a death sentence. In fact, you can bounce back after failing the bar and pass on your next attempt. Consider the famed notables who failed the bar exam: John F. Kennedy failed the bar twice before passing the third time, and if two failures isn't discouraging enough, Benjamin Cardozo, a Supreme Court Justice, had the pluck and perseverance to take the test six times before passing it. Hillary Clinton failed it the first time, Michelle Obama failed it the first time, and multiple successful lawyers, law school deans, and state governors failed the bar on the first attempt.

Keep calm and remember how to relax yourself. You've worked hard to get this far, so have confidence that you will do your best. Good luck!



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