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The bar examination is the final hurdle before one’s professional career begins. It is both a hazing ritual and a rite of passage, a bizarre bridge between the Twilight Zone of law school and the Outer Limits of modern legal practice. Pass or fail, the bar applicant must confront serious realities that require thoughtful and deliberate action. PASSING THE BAR EXAMINATION The emotions of successful applicants range from exhausted relief to exuberant jubilation. There’s no doubt that passing the bar exam is one of the high points of one’s legal career, certainly on a par with winning a big trial or closing a huge deal. Getting a law degree is one thing, often rather like getting released from prison, but getting a law license is far more satisfying, more practical. Successful bar applicants fall into two categories, those who have set jobs and those who do not. Either way, the freshly-licensed lawyer is well advised to engage in some careful planning and soul searching. The best-paying law jobs pay incredibly well; many young lawyers do not take the time to do financial planning and end up squandering a lot of money. New lawyers with a degree but no job also have to engage in financial planning. It may be a bad idea for a lawyer to represent himself or herself, but there’s a lot to be said for being one’s own boss. Again, that requires prudent planning and quite a lot of work. FAILING THE BAR EXAMINATION For many bar applicants, flunking the bar exam is their first significant brush with failure. The emotions can be deep and profound, and it’s a mistake either to try to ignore them or to wallow in them. Let the feelings run their course. Other applicants are less bothered by the experience of failing, either because their life experiences have afforded them a broader perspective or because for various reasons the results are not a surprise. It’s worth keeping in mind that most applicants ultimately do pass the bar, although for some applicants it requires several attempts. THE AUTOPSY An unsuccessful bar applicant has to do a post-mortem on every aspect of his or her preparation and performance. Usually, this starts with the score card. How close did the applicant come to passing? Did any part of the exam kill the person’s chances — the MBE as opposed to the essays? Did the applicant perform well in the subject areas he or she thought they knew the best? What happened during the days of the exam — were there any physical problems or other difficulties that might have hurt the applicant’s performance? Did the applicant choke during the test? THE GAME PLAN Unsuccessful applicants need to devise their strategy for taking the exam again. The most common mistake made by first-time applicants is to study too much and not practice enough. Many unsuccessful applicants know as much (or more) law than their more successful counterparts. Repeat bar applicants, by and large, shouldn’t waste their time sitting through a full set of bar review lectures again. They should not go back and make three-color outlines of the substantive law. Instead, they ought to do as much practice as possible in the areas that caused them difficulty. The best way to learn the law for the bar examination is to do a lot of practice MBE questions and essays. There is a strong correlation between the amount of practice MBE questions an applicant does and his or her final score on the test. It’s best for a repeat applicant to work through MBE and essay questions, and then study the law from the material they couldn’t test well in. The Multistate Bar Examination is as much a reading test as it is a law test. One can miss an MBE question by not knowing the law or by making a reading or reasoning error. It’s important not only to know the law, but to understand how it is tested. The most common mistake folks make on the essays is to concentrate too much on reciting boilerplate definitions and not enough on factual analysis. This situation is made worse by the corporate bar review courses, which do a great job teaching the black letter law and a lousy job teaching essay technique. Most of the staff lawyers for corporate bar review courses are neither accomplished writers nor experienced lawyers. They are salespeople, not academics. It’s no surprise that corporate bar review profits never have been higher and their pass rates never have been lower. It is useful and important to recognize that there is more to passing the bar than knowing the law and having good test-taking technique. There are important physical and emotional aspects to taking and passing the bar examination. Many applicants, even young and healthy ones, are surprised by how physically draining the bar examination is. It makes sense for an unsuccessful applicant to plan on being in better shape on the first day of the next bar exam than on the day he or she got the bad news. It also is vitally important for a repeat applicant to consider the emotional aspects of preparing for and taking the bar exam, and to do those things most likely to improve the emotional climate of the next go-round. Suppose you are a bar applicant who did everything he or she was supposed to, who attended all the lectures, did 3000 MBE questions and 75 practice essays, and then failed by a wide margin. Although it is quite possible all that practice was done poorly, rather like a piano student doing a huge amount of practice with his or her hands in the wrong position to start with, it also is possible that the scores reveal a hidden learning disability. Many successful law students end up failing the bar because hard work can’t compensate for the learning disability on a timed bar exam the way it can do in law school. It may be useful for an applicant in that position to consult a learning expert and perhaps submit to clinical testing to look for a learning disability. Applicants who have learning disabilities are entitled to appropriate special accommodations on the bar exam, such as extra time and a private room. CONCLUSION The bar examination is one of the most memorable experiences — and one of the only universal experiences — shared by all lawyers. Failing the exam can be one of the most significant personal and professional obstacles in the life of a young lawyer. Passing the bar is wonderful, even if the only immediate reaction is relief. Either way, it’s important for ambitious young people not to waste their youth in the bitter pursuit of status and success. There’s a lot more to life than professional achievement. The bar exam is a necessary evil, one that can be conquered with perseverance. Scott Pearce is an experienced litigator and bar examination tutor in Los Angeles. He provides bar examination tutorial and home study services for law firms and bar students throughout the country. Previously, Pearce lectured and tutored at Bar/Bri, Barpassers, and PMBR. For more information, visit Pearce’s Web site at www.passthebar.com.

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