How to Pass the California Bar Exam: Part One

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This is Part One of a “How to Pass the California Bar Exam” Series. In each part of this series I will focus on things that you can do in your studies to achieve a passing score on the California bar exam.

What is a bar examinee to do when bar exam pass rates are seemingly at an all-time low in California? It is true that the pass rate for the last few administrations of the California bar exam have declined. This is something that is occurring nationally as well (Uniform Bar Exam States have pass rates in the low 40%). To solve a problem it often helps to figure out the root cause. Declining pass rates are a problem – for those taking the exam and for law schools. There is a lot of blame going on out there. Not only of students, bar prep courses, but law schools, the ABA and the California State Bar. So who’s fault is it?

I have some thoughts. First of all, these low pass rates have been seen in California before. This is not shocking. I have found that those who are relatively new to this industry of bar prep – are writing about the “abysmal” California bar pass rates as if it is a brand new phenomenon. It is not. Pass rates on the February bar administrations have been in the mid thirty percentile many times. It is not unusual. Still, we are seeing an overall decline (if you look at the past couple of years). But, if you look at a twenty or thirty year window (and not just a smaller snapshot of three or four bar rounds) you will see something different. In the past, when we have seen these low dipping pass rates, it has ultimately been followed (eventually) by higher pass rates. This up and down has not been unusual. I say this, because it is important for you as either an examinee or a law student, to know that all is not lost. Failing is devastating. But, passing is within reach.

So, how do you do that? How do you pass this seemingly un-passable (if you focus on the 65.5% fail rate from February 2017) exam?

First, the skill set that is required to pass this exam has not – in my opinion – changed. That is not to say that I blame students for failing the bar exam. I do not. But, I do think that many examinees are simply misinformed about what to do to pass. I know this to be a fact actually. I have worked with thousands of students over the years (since 1996) and this has taught me a thing or two – not only about students, but about what law schools are doing to prepare students and about what examinees are taught (or not taught) to do by the national bar prep courses.

Over the years, bar prep companies have de-emphasized the practice of the exam. Some bar prep companies only grade 3 or 4 essays and 1 or 2 performance tests. Back in my day (yes, I just said that) we were assigned up to 30 or 40 essays – ALL OF WHICH WERE GRADED! That is simply not the case anymore. The problem with only providing feedback on a couple of exams, is that these courses are essentially (in my opinion) telling examinees that practice essay writing (and performance test writing) is not an important part of your bar study and bar preparation. This could not be further from reality. And, it is in my humble opinion, one of the leading reasons for the low bar pass rate. Law schools are to blame as well. An example from one of my students who took a national bar prep course the first time she took the bar. She was a graduate of a tier one, ABA law school. Someone from her law school told her that if she was getting 64% on her practice MBEs on Adaptibar (love their product, by the way) that she “was fine” because that was higher than the national average on Adaptibar.

Well, I can tell you that this is not nearly enough. Her bar prep course told her she was fine and her law school told her she was fine. And, she went to a great law school and achieved high grades (made the dean’s list, law review, etc.) and yet she failed on her first attempt. I truly believe that she failed because she was misguided. Incidentally, she passed on her second time under my tutelage. She was bright before I met her. She simply needed the right information. Being told that getting a “D” on your MBEs is not the right direction or the right information. On her first attempt she spent way too much time memorizing and reading and way too little time on the actual practice of the MBEs and of the written portion of the bar exam.

So what gives? Do I think her bar prep provider and law school intentionally mislead her and lulled her into a false sense of security? Of course not. But, neither of these resources (both of which she paid a lot of money for) had the right answers or the right directions. That is a problem.

Here is what I tell my students regarding the MBEs (which are now even more significant given it is now 50% of the new two-day California bar exam):

You need to reach 85% on your practice MBEs to have a reasonable chance (okay, a really, really good chance) of passing the California bar exam. You CAN do this, you CAN achieve this score and when you do, your odds of passing are much, much greater.

So, how do you achieve this score?

You need to use the NCBE release questions and stick to these only! Sources for these questions are: the NCBE (there website is here at: – You really need to spend some time on their site), Adaptibar, and The Strategies and Tactics Book for the MBE. Of all of these sources, the one that I think no examinee should ever do without is the Strategies and Tactics Book, by Walton and Emanuel (6th Edition, Volume I) Note: I do not personally care too much for their Volume II. Volume I is a goldmine for examinees. It is why I was able to pass the bar exam on my first try (I read every line of it, completed every question and studied every answer) and it is why my students who use it and follow our instructions do well. You can achieve 85% on the practice MBEs. And, in my opinion, you have to do this in order to have a good chance of passing.

Note: I do not have any financial interest in the above resources. Further, these are not the only resources available for the National Conference of Bar Examiner’s questions (other courses have a license to use the NCBE questions). But, these are the sources I trust and know the most about and can, without a doubt, recommend to you.

I will be posting free handouts on how to improve your MBE score this weekend and some additional guidance about how to approach the MBEs (how many do you need to do, how to do them, timing, flash cards etc.).

As space is filling up quickly, you don’t want to miss the first live (or streaming live – if you can’t make it in person) Bar Exam Cram Session geared to helping you begin your preparation for the new 2 day California Bar Exam. For more information, contact us at: 213-529-0990 or use the this link to register.

All the best in your studies!

Lisa Duncanson
Founder/Program Director
Bar None Review and