How To Succeed on the Bar Exam
As recent law school graduates prepare to take the bar exam this summer, five alumni from the University of Virginia School of Law’s Class of 2018 share their advice for succeeding in the process, and comment on what classes best prepared them.
The Bronx Defenders, New York City
“Studying for the bar exam was a huge shift from law school and, for me, required a very different mindset. After three years of exploring nuances and building creative arguments, bar prep turned everything into black-and-white rules with only one right answer. It made things a lot simpler, but a lot less interesting. The not-so-simple part was just how much there was to learn. To deal with the volume, I found a routine that worked for me: I approached it like a 9-to-5 job. I'd spend the morning at one coffee shop, take a lunch break and watch some World Cup soccer, then find a library or another coffee shop for the afternoon. To be honest, most weeks I ended up having to do some review on the weekend or in the evening too. But it made it easier to think of it as a 9-to-5.
“Because the way I was learning in law school was so different than what the bar exam required, a lot of my classes didn't translate well to bar prep. They equipped me with the concepts, but many of the black-and-white rules I had to learn for the bar felt overly simplified compared to what I had learned just months before. That said, the most helpful experiences for me were Evidence with Professor [Greg] Mitchell and my externship with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Office of the Public Defender. Professor Mitchell's class was built around problem sets. We would learn a rule and then spend a class working through example after example of how the rule plays out, almost always with a single answer at the end of the rule. And in my externship, working with clients to defend them against actual criminal charges provided real-world examples of criminal law and criminal constitutional law every day.”
White & Case, New York City
“My advice to students studying for the bar is to trust your bar review course and try not to let yourselves get overwhelmed by the process. The bar review courses have been doing this for a long time and have created very effective schedules and methods. If you follow the course, do the work and take advantage of every resource your course offers, then you will be in a solid place come test time. Try to set some time aside each day for yourself to unwind. Studying for the bar is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is better to take some time for yourself each day rather than burn out early.”
Jones Day, Washington, D.C.
“The bar is unlike any test you’ve ever taken before. By which I mean you’re not aiming to get the best score you can. This may be the only time in your life you can do the bare minimum and it won’t hold you back in any practical way. Of course, make sure you are doing the work, but beyond that, there’s no reason to stress. Take plenty of time for yourself. Revel in this period when you only have one task to worry about. You graduated from UVA Law! You got this.”
Latham & Watkins, San Francisco Bay Area
“A few classes that help preparation for the bar exam are Evidence, Trusts and Estates, and Criminal Procedure. These aren’t mandatory courses in law school, but they are on the bar exam — it’s a lot easier to refresh foundational knowledge of these subjects as you study for the bar than to learn them from scratch. That being said, it’s more important to take courses that stimulate intellectual growth and curiosity in law school than just to prepare for the bar. It is very possible and achievable to learn all the material with just background law school knowledge, even without those courses, in preparation for the bar. Taking even one of these courses would be enough to prepare for the bar while leaving room in the schedule for other interesting courses.
“As for studying for the bar itself, the most difficult aspect of it is maintaining a healthy mental state and balance before the exam. Having an unadulterated eight weeks to study is really daunting and everyone should try to put systems in place to maintain personal mental wellbeing. That can mean studying only eight hours a day or tailoring the bar prep course to whatever individual subjects need the most work. It can mean making time for movies, family activities or even a short trip. As long as the main focus is on studying (approaching it like a full-time job), make sure that the rest of the time is enjoyable and relieves some stress.”
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Orange County, California
“For grads, I’d tell them to do their best to follow the bar prep course schedule but also remember that virtually everyone who graduates UVA Law passes the bar. It’s really, really important to also have a little fun over the summer, because once work starts there are no more long breaks! I’d also encourage them to make and use flashcards — it’s a great way to study.”
Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago
“Reflect. Refuel. Refocus. I believe the hardest part about the bar exam is the timing. Graduates have just finished three years of a grueling curriculum and the day after graduation they are expected to dive back into the books. There is little time for celebration and even less time for self-reflection. Before you begin studying, and regularly throughout the summer, take some time to reflect on everything you have accomplished. Whether it be your tenacity, your optimism, your ability to rise to the occasion, lean hard into those strengths and use them as the fuel to get you to the finish line. The bar exam is more a psychological obstacle than anything else, and if you think about your most recent achievement of graduating from an incredible law school, that will provide you with confidence as you head into the next challenge. A 10-week study schedule is a lot easier to fathom when you think about how you just made it through three years, and one exam sounds a lot better than the 20 or so you already completed during your time at UVA. Focus on the new goal of passing the bar and reach out to your UVA classmates to support each other.
“Bar prep is all about cramming a lot of information in during a very small time period and to get you through the material you need some mini-victories. The more material you are seeing for a second time, as opposed to learning on the spot, the better. I felt like Evidence, Criminal Procedure and Secured Transactions are monstrous topics, and it was a lot easier to relearn rather than learn. It’ll also help you stay calmer during the process because it’s less overwhelming when you at least have an idea of what those topics cover.”
Hunton Andrews Kurth, Richmond, Virginia
“Follow your bar prep company’s study plan, do what works for you in terms of extra review (for example, I like making my own shorthand outlines, but others may prefer flashcards), and if you’re taking the Virginia bar, review the past essay questions on the bar exam website and the William & Mary Law School online data bank of suggested answers — they often repeat at least one question every year.
“The best classes for bar prep are all 1L classes, Land Use Law (I’ll never forget Dillon’s Rule) and Corporations.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.