Law clerk Philip Cooper, at the Hugo L. Black United States Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 5, 2017. Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon

There are many different preparation routes one can take to ensure a really high score on the Texas bar exam. Philip Cooper’s just happened to involve a city bus.

Cooper won the top mark on the July exam by scoring 884 out of a possible 1,000 points. What made that top score even more remarkable is that Cooper graduated from an out of state law school, the University of Chicago Law School, in 2017.

“So, it was a bit of steep learning curve because of the Texas specific stuff,” Cooper said. “Once you get a framework it all falls into place. But there’s no substitute for spending the time studying.’’

While most law students prefer to sequester themselves indoors for intense rounds of studying, Cooper did the opposite by going outside. Every afternoon, he caught a city bus from his apartment in South Chicago for a 30 minute ride downtown. Once he arrived near the Kirkland & Ellis office, where his girlfriend Grace Bridwell works as a tax associate, he’d sit on a bench under a tree alongside the Chicago River with a book and wait for her to get off work.

“It’s just beautiful there in June and July,” Cooper said. “You have to get outside of yourself to study, so physically moving yourself does help.”

Cooper was part of a group of eight law school friends who were all taking the Texas bar — many of whom were either Texas natives or had clerkships in the state. And most of them were so freaked out about the exam, they couldn’t imagine taking a break to smell the roses.

“I thought that was crazy. I was stressed out and in shock. And he was doing that,” said Max Fin, Cooper’s best friend from law school who is now an associate in the Houston office of Latham & Watkins. “He wasn’t wasting his time, he’d be on the bus studying and thinking about what he was looking at. He was doing everything right, he wasn’t panicking, and he wasn’t stressed and that’s how he was in law school.’’

Cooper compared his studying progress with his friends, Fin said.

“Consistently, Phil was ahead of everybody else. I knew he’d be the highest scorer in our group. But I certainly wasn’t surprised he was highest scorer in Texas,” Fin said. “The only person who’s ever surprised is Phil. Those who know him aren’t.’’

While it’s unusual for law students from out-of-state law schools to grab the highest score, it’s not unheard of. In 2016, Lynne Powers got the highest score with an 875 after graduating from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

Power, who is now an associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Houston, took the opposite approach from Cooper in preparing for the exam by hunkering down to study for the bar.

She recalled that she would wake up between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and spend her days on test preparation in a spare bedroom that her parents transformed into a study. She put her mind to memorization, drank a lot of Red Bull, flipped a lot of flash cards and used a homemade white board.

“I would maybe study till five in the morning. It was a lot,” she said.

She said that sitting for the actual exam was surreal. Afterward, she felt good about her essays, but was nervous about the multiple-choice questions. She said she tried not to focus at looking back at her performance.

“When you are taking it, nothing is easy—it’s very stressful,” she recalled.

Cooper is currently clerking in Birmingham, Alabama for William Pryor Jr, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Next year, he’ll leave for the Washington D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to work as an associate doing appellate work.

“D.C. allows people to waive in if they’ve taken a state bar exam. So by taking the Texas exam, I get two for the price of one,’’ Cooper said.

But eventually, at his friends’ behest, Cooper hopes to practice in Texas, possibly in Gibson Dunn’s Dallas office.

“I wanted to be in the right place with the right people,’’ Cooper said of Texas. “With the variety of work available and the concentration of good firms in one state, it really is the land of opportunity for young lawyers.”

To make it official Cooper traveled to Austin on November 20 where he was sworn in by Texas Supreme Court Justices Nathan Hecht and Justice Don Willett, where he gave brief remarks before a crowd of a thousand of the state’s newest attorneys.

Cooper hopes Texas will be the land of opportunity, just like the United States was for his parents. Both of them were lawyers in Canada who gave up their practice when they moved to U.S. after Cooper’s father became a Baptist pastor and eventually settled in Minneapolis. Cooper has since become a U.S. citizen.

“Even though I was born in Canada, I’m excited to be here and share in the culture of the United States,’’ Cooper said.