How I Passed the California Bar Exam While Practicing Full-Time
Note: I wrote this article back in 2015 for another blog. Since that blog does not exist anymore, I am reprinting the article here.
I have taken, and passed, three Bar exams: Florida, New York, and California. The California exam was my most recent scuffle (February 2015), and by far the hardest for me. This is partially because California has, arguably, the toughest Bar exam in the country (only 39.5% passed the exam I took). It is also because I took the three-day exam while working full-time as an attorney.
Bar exams are enough of a challenge when you are fresh out of law school, haven’t started your job yet, and have two uninterrupted months to prepare. But studying for one while practicing law? That’s a whole other kind of horrible.
The California Bar was a physically- and mentally-taxing experience. I managed to pass (thankfully!), and so I wanted to write about how I studied to help other attorneys who will attempt to do the same (in either California or another state) next month. This approach allowed me to learn as much law as I could given that I only had about 6 weeks of prep time-–and could not take any time off work.
First, I learned the black-letter law by using lecture videos from Themis, filling out their lecture outlines along the way. Themis even lets you watch the videos at 1.5x speed so you can get through them quicker (definitely do this!). It only took me a week-and-a-half of nights and weekends to get through the videos since I had covered a lot of the MBE material during Bar exams I took two years ago.
Themis also provided massive books of outlines with extra material for each Bar subject. I ignored those completely. I did not have time to learn anything but the most important concepts, and what is taught in the lectures is more than what you need to pass.
Second, I took every completed Themis lecture outline and condensed them into flash cards. I made a stack of cards for each subject. One side of the card would have a legal concept (such as “Factors for Corporate Veil Piercing”), and the other side would have information about that concept. The mere exercise of making the flash cards helped me learn a ton of material, and going through the flash cards subject-by-subject helped as well. I spent about two-and-a-half weeks making the flash cards and going through them aggressively.
Third, I condensed the material further, reducing the concepts on each set of flash cards to one sheet of paper for each subject. Shrinking the material down into smaller and smaller bits really helped me learn everything. Plus, these “one-pagers” were easy to transport, allowing me to study efficiently at the office when I had free moments on the job. Making the one-pagers took me about a week to do.
With my last week before the exam, I focused on the concepts in each subject that gave me the most trouble (damn you, limits on character evidence). I also did a ton of practice MBE questions; I did plenty of questions throughout the six weeks too, but I really buckled down on questions during this period.
I also outlined some practice essays. Most people advocate practicing essays by writing out full answers under timed conditions, but I just stuck to outlining. I trusted myself that I knew how to write a Bar essay and I did not want to waste precious hours in my final week doing meaningless legal analysis (plus, I had a TON of actual work going on that week).
A final note with regard to the practice essays: No matter how well you think you did, you are going to feel crushed when you compare your work to whatever model answer the test prep company came up with. Shake it off. That author spent hours (if not days) composing that answer, which will often include legal concepts that no reasonable test taker could have possibly thought of during a time-pressured, closed-book exam.
Best of luck in July, and do what you can to manage your stress in the meantime. Just because your life is utterly consumed with work and Bar prep doesn’t mean you can’t take one night off each week to recharge your batteries. In fact, doing so is essential if you’re going to get through the grind ahead.
If you have any Bar prep questions or just need a pep talk, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.