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Last month I signed up to take the California bar exam in July. (I am fully aware that I might be insane.) I have had to decline too many opportunities to help potential clients in California, and since they shortened the bar exam from three days to two (only one day for attorneys practicing for the last four years), I decided to take the plunge.
Taking the Arizona bar exam right after law school, when I had no obligations outside of studying, was challenging enough. This time, I reached out to colleagues who passed a second bar exam while they were working to ask for advice on braving the gauntlet again.
Eight attorneys responded to my request for advice. One pervasive piece of advice was to treat studying like a job and stick to a study schedule. Some people studied before and after work and on the weekends. Others had the option to study at work or to take at least one day off per week to study.
A colleague at Venjuris, Wendy Akbar (N.Y. 2002, Ariz. 2007), had the benefit of studying with her lawyer husband when they both moved to Arizona for new positions. Her advice: “Make a schedule as to what subjects you will devote which days to and stick to it.” They would work all day, attend Barbri in the evening and study on weekends, with rewards built in when they hit certain milestones.
My law school classmate Amara Edblad (Ariz. 2011, Pa. and N.J. 2012) echoed this sentiment: “Break up your day with studying and work and commit to it. Cancel everything else because there just won’t be enough time in the day. It’s only a couple of months of your life in the long run. You have chosen to do this and have paid a lot of money. Just commit.”
Several respondents said heading into their second bar exam, they took off between 10 days and two weeks for that final studying push. Heading into my first bar exam, I spent my last two weeks drilling flashcards and doing practice questions. I suspect that will be me again.
When planning how much time off you’ll need, Pennsylvania solo practitioner Johnathan Cohen (Pa. 2013, W.V. 2015) suggested asking for 20 percent more time off. “You’ll need the leeway because you’re giving yourself too much credit,” he said.
When it comes to responding to the bar exam essay questions, my colleagues reminded me that bar exam essays are not like the legal writing we do for clients or the court. “Remember the bar exam is not like real law practice, it’s a test of very specific skills,” said New York solo practitioner Havona Madama (N.Y. 1996, Ill. 1997, Calif. 2001). “Follow the format examiners like to see.”
Cohen was a bit more blunt: “Forget how you write in legal practice. Pretend the bar examiners are complete idiots and write down every part of the essay that may matter.” This sentiment is shared by Barbri instructor and author Chad Noreuil in his book, “The Arizona Bar Exam: Pass It Now,” which helped me prepare for the bar the first time around.
Studying for the bar exam is brutal, and California has a reputation for being especially brutal. I suspect I’ll be deploying some of the tactics that I used when taking my first bar exam: stick to a study schedule, cram my guts out for the last two weeks, and use an overly explanatory format for essay questions. These worked the first time, and they worked for other lawyers who studied while still working.
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