Eric’s Tips to Surviving the California Bar Exam
by Eric Goldman
The California Bar exam is one of the least pleasant experiences suffered by a California lawyer. A three day grueling test of stamina (and perhaps of knowledge), it casts a pall over law school graduation, all post-bar vacations and even Thanksgiving weekend (which follows the release of exam results). While nothing can make the exam pleasant, it is passable! Here are my tips for surviving the exam:
1. Learn Bar Law. The bar exam tests a body of law that exists in no jurisdiction in the world. For example, the multistate portion will test you on burglary using a combination of common law principles that have been superseded in every jurisdiction. Don’t ask why the exam tests legal rules that exist nowhere. “That is the way it is.” Instead, assume that none of the legal principles you learned in law school or elsewhere necessarily apply on the exam, and thus devote yourself to learning this funky and unique legal system called bar law.
2. Use Bar/Bri. You need a course to teach you bar law. With the dearth of competition, Bar/Bri is your only choice. Taking the exam without using a preparation course is too foolhardy to warrant consideration.
3. The First Week of Bar/Bri is Optional. Having been trained to be anal, it is almost impossible to believe that the first week of Bar/Bri is not mandatory. While the week’s session may be worthwhile, you can do fine without it. In any respect, you should rest up and take it easy during this week. This will be your last chance to do so.
4. Follow the Bar/Bri Schedule. It is simple—do everything Bar/Bri asks you to do, and you are almost assured of passage. In reality, you do not need to do everything; 90% is probably good enough. The key point is that you should follow Bar/Bri’s schedule faithfully. Do not fall behind with the assumption you can catch up later. The schedule does not have a soft spot where you can catch up.
In my experience, I found that I could do about 10-12 hours a day productively (including class time). There were few days I did more, but only a very few days where I did less.
5. Do the Practice Exams. I find I learn a lot from taking practice exams, so I do them religiously. I found that knowing implicitly how much I could write in a one hour or three hour exam, or how long it took me to do 100 multistate questions, was very helpful in dealing with the quirks I encountered on my exam. I also liked submitting my practice exams for grading—it told me if my exam-taking techniques were working. One of my best experiences was when I got a high score on a practice test where I did not know the substantive law very well—I knew that my fudging skills were working!
It is especially crucial to do the old performance exams. There is nothing quite like a California performance exam, but practice does make it easier.
6. You May Not Need a Supplement Like PMBR. I thought Bar/Bri was adequate for the multistate, so I did not need a multistate supplement. In fact, I was relieved that I could allocate my scarce time at the end as I wanted, since I thought there were skills I wanted to spend more time on than the multistate.
My wife took PMBR, which she found very disconcerting. PMBR’s questions were much harder than Bar/Bri’s, and her poor performance on their diagnostic exam shook her confidence. Regardless of whether PMBR’s substantive training helped her, her confidence loss near the end of the studying cycle was very stress-inducing.
7. Choose Lodging Carefully!
- Stay in the Hotel. It’s a little costly to rent a room, but I cannot imagine dealing with exam stress AND traffic stress. You get no bonus time allotment for accidents on the 880.
- Lower Floors Are Better. The elevators are a mess during the exam. First, they become completely overloaded immediately prior to and after exam sessions, making for long delays. Second, they are crammed full of freaking-out exam takers. It’s not pretty. The stairs are the only way to go.
- Get a Non-Smoking Room. If you are a non-smoker, (almost) nothing is worse than a hotel room recently vacated by a heavy smoker, except…
- Watch Out for Noise. Your choice of a testing facility makes a difference. I clumsily chose to take the exam at the LAX testing facility, where every side of the hotel faces LAX’s flight path. VRO—OO—OM … VRO—OO—OM … VRO—OO—OM!!! Assuming you choose the right testing facility, there are usually quieter sides of a hotel. Facing an Interstate is probably not much better than facing a runway.
- Who Knew Elevators Were So Noisy? During my wife’s exam, when we checked in, the only non-smoking room available was next to the elevator core. The elevators’ rumbling was almost as bad as the 747s. Avoid rooms next to the elevator core, especially at the Oakland Marriott. You may also want to avoid the ice machine and soda machine.
The key is to ARRIVE EARLY and CHECK-IN EARLY. For example, though the hotels say they reserve non-smoking rooms, usually they just note a “preference” on your reservation. So you want to check-in early to make sure they still have non-smoking rooms available on the desired side of the building—don’t assume they will hold a room for you. Plus, by coming early, you have a chance of changing rooms if the room assigned to you is undesirable.
8. Plan for Lunch. If someone is with you during the exams, put them in charge of having lunch ready for you at the beginning of the break. This saves precious time during the lunch break and minimizes administrative stress. If you do not have a support person, to avoid fighting the crowds, you may want to make or get lunch the evening before and store it in a cooler.
9. Don’t Freak Out. This is the single most important tip—don’t freak out about any of the problems or hassles that occur, either in the test or the testing environment. I am sure many, many people who could have passed knock themselves out because they freak out about something. Keep a level head and stay within your game plan. You can pass—if you believe in yourself and don’t lose your cool.
Best of luck in surviving the challenge!
About the author: Eric Goldman is General Counsel of Epinions (http://www.epinions.com), the place where people make informed decisions before buying anything, and an adjunct professor of cyberspace law at Santa Clara University School of Law. He was formerly an attorney at Cooley Godward LLP, Palo Alto, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.