Five things you can do now to increase your chances of passing the California Bar Exam!

Preparing early for the February 2019 bar exam.

If you are taking the February 2019 bar exam, I urge you to begin your studies early. There is no time like the present. All too often, examinees wait until the last two months before taking one of the hardest bar exams in the country to begin their studies. And even then, many examinees really don’t get going on their studies and find a groove that works for them until several weeks into their studies. It takes time to develop habits and it takes time to learn and memorize the law.


I personally believe that waiting to begin your studies in December for the February bar exam is taking a risk. Certainly you can pass with a few months of intense study. But, the safest route is to begin studying early so that you can truly begin your review in a more leisurely fashion and have the opportunity to repeat your review of every subject multiple times between now and the actual exam. You can start studying a few hours a week, on weekends or week nights if you are working full time. Or you can study 3 or 4 days a week during October (even just a few hours a day) and then increase your study days and hours in November and increase your study hours again in December.

By approaching your studies this way, you are ramping up to a more intense study period and will benefit tremendously from an early review of the materials. You will not feel rushed and you will definitely not regret having started your studies early!

Here are five things you can begin doing in the next few weeks to ensure that you pass the February 2019 bar exam:

1. Start studying the actual test, now! 

Reviewing past essay exams is one of the quickest ways to learn what the bar examiners are looking for and to understand the context for the law that you are learning. And, if you actually study the answers, you are learning the law. It is truly a type of substantive review, but one that is far more specific to the task at hand. Keep in mind you will not be called upon to write a Torts outline on the bar exam. Instead, you will be expected to write an essay answer. This is something that you need to prepare for.

All too often examinees fail because they delay the actual study of the exam. I have worked with thousands of students preparing for the bar, many of whom were repeat bar exam takers. One of the biggest mistakes an examinee can make is to delay review and study of the essay exams and MBEs. Most examinees seem to understand the importance of doing practice MBEs. But, far too many examinees wait to conduct a review of the essays (and answers) until they feel they have the law memorized. This is a big mistake!

First of all, by waiting until you have the law memorized you fail to see the context for the law you are trying to learn and you end up understanding less. This makes it harder to memorize and tends to send examinees off a cliff of never ending and pointless memorization.

The bar examiners are not looking for your ability to regurgitate rule statements. Instead, it is your job to identify legal issues presented by each essay and resolve these issues through a solid legal analysis. Yes, it is important to know the rules. But, until you carefully review essays and answers, you will have a bridge to gap between what you have memorized in your outline and what you should say/write in your essay answer. Furthermore, until you start studying the actual test questions (both essays and MBEs) you will not know how the issues come up or how to organize a successful essay answer. It is a bad feeling to spend months memorizing outlines and then open an essay exam and not be certain as to what issues are presented or how to organize your answer or, worse, how to even start your answer.

One of the best ways to prepare for the exam is to truly understand the material. This might seem obvious. But, far too many examinees memorize voluminous outlines only to their demise because they have failed to see how the issues are tested on the essays.

Make sure that you begin studying the essays and answers soon. Your goal should be to see as many as possible (I recommend reading through at least 100 past exams and answers). Essay exams repeat over and over again. Therefore, by reading and studying past exams you will increase your chances of seeing something similar on the actual bar exam. How great would that be?

2. Write some practice exams under non-timed conditions and open book to learn the law.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a big proponent of learning from the actual test. While writing timed essay exams for practice is something you should do. It is also important to write exams under non-timed conditions and open book so that you can work on sorting out how to answer the question. Think about it this way: do you want to just get a 60 or a 65 (or worse) on your essays? Or do you want to be able to write 75s and 80s? Well, practicing essays under non-timed conditions, with the benefit of an answer and a writing approach for that subject, will help you craft your own model answer that is well above passing.

It is true that you will not have more than an hour on the exam day. But, if you take the time to tackle some of the subjects that are particularly challenging now, under non-timed conditions (like Products Liability, First Amendment Speech Essays, Evidence Transcript Style Essays and Evidence in general) you will have a tremendous advantage on exam day. And, you will have a far better understanding of the material (since you have practiced – without the time pressure – how to analyze it and organize it). All of this will make memorization much easier. Under the time pressure of the actual exam, you will write more fluidly and effectively because you have practiced it beforehand.

3. Make sure you know how to begin every essay subject or topic.

One of the challenges I had leading up to the bar exam many years ago, was the fear of not knowing how to even start my essay answer. So, I decided to tackle this. I liked Community Property because there was an easy paragraph that is used to start all Community Property essays. That brought me comfort and some peace of mind. I thought about the other subjects and how could I make every topic this comfortable. Well, I thought about Constitutional Law and how most of the time (not always, but most often) Constitutional Law essays begin with an Article III Case or Controversy discussion (where in addition to State Action, you address Standing, Ripeness, Mootness and Political Question). Then I committed to working out both a starting point and an approach for every subject so that I would know how to begin my exams on exam day. This was time consuming, but I know it was one of the reasons that I passed the California bar exam on my first attempt.
One way to figure out how you should start your essay answer is by reviewing past essays and answers (see above, under number 1). There are also resources available that provide approaches by topic to assist you in writing an organized essay exam. Our Bar Exam Cram Sheets include approaches for the most commonly tested essay areas (this includes step-by-step approaches as well as what headings to use). It is important to know ahead of time – before you walk into the bar exam – what your approach will be for each subject and topic. Even better (and I think this is really a necessity) is to have that approach evidenced in the headings that you use on each essay.

4. Condense the material that you need to commit to memory.

Trying to commit outlines that are each 100 pages or more is not only not realistic, it is not necessary or practical. Instead, you should conduct an extensive review of each topic and then move away from the more extensive material to a) either an outline that you have created for yourself that is a condensed outline (2 to 4 pages per topic) or b) purchase a condensed outline (from a source you trust) and make it your own. By this I mean, go through past exams and add notes to your condensed outline so that it becomes a document that represents not only the rules for a subject, but also the most commonly tested areas of law from the essays.

It is very important to have a condensed and trustworthy outline for each topic prior to going into the bar exam.

Every subject really does have an approach. Rather than trying to commit a hundred page outline to memory, you should be working on figuring out how to bridge the gap between your study of lengthy outlines and the essays. There is a gap. Typical outlines do not prepare you for the realities of writing an essay answer. You need short and concise definitions – not one or two paragraph definitions – in order to successfully handle all of the issues that a one hour California bar exam essay requires.

Again, sign up above for a free condensed Torts outline (our Torts Bar Exam Cram Sheets).

5. Be Smart About the MBEs.

First of all, do MBEs on a regular and consistent basis. There is no reason not to begin working on MBEs now, this month. Trust me, you will not regret starting early.

The question then becomes, how many MBEs you should do and should you work on MBEs every day right now? Well, it is still September of 2018. So I recommend that you begin working on MBEs at least one or two days per week.  How many MBEs you complete will depend upon how much time you have available (whether you are working full time, part time or if you are able to study full time). If you are working full time, then getting time to practice MBE questions will be a challenge. If that is your situation leading up to the February 2019 bar exam, then it is imperative that you start your studies sooner rather than later.

How should you work through your MBEs during early bar preparation?

Most examinees do not start out achieving great scores on their practice MBEs. So divining in and doing a batch of 50 MBEs right now is not likely going to be very productive. Instead, you want to learn from each and every MBE that you work through so that you can ensure that you will get it right on exam day. This takes a lot of time.

Proficiency on the MBEs does not come from a review of outlines as much as it comes from studying and working through the actual NCBE released MBEs. There are a few sources for these MBEs (I will write more on this later).

Here is how you should attack the MBEs in the first few months of your studies – assuming you are beginning your studies by October 2018 for the February 2019 bar exam:

Complete each MBE one at a time and review the answers carefully before moving onto the next MBE. Eventually, you will need to complete 200 MBEs in one day. And, you should attempt to do that well before the actual bar exam. However, in the beginning of your studies you will need to rely on the questions to actually learn and understand the substantive material. The way to increase your MBE scores and is through practicing and studying the actual MBEs and learning how to resolve each one in your favor. This can not, and does not, happen under timed conditions.

The best way to fix an MBE that you have missed and increase your chances of getting it correct the next time – is to immediately review the answer explanations to that MBE. The goal is to make the correction quickly and without delay. Think about it this way: if you complete a set of 30 or 50 MBEs without checking the answers and then go back to check the answers afterwards, you will have to re-read the MBE fact pattern again in order to make sense of the answer explanations. This takes time, and it actually wastes time. If you want to make the quickest corrections and make these corrections stick – review the answer explanations for each MBE right after you pick your answer, before moving on to the next MBE.

Good luck to all who are studying for the bar exam. Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog for more tips!