Experience and Advice After Taking the Virginia Bar Exam in 2010
On July 28, 2010, at around 5:00 p.m., I walked out of Roanoke Civic Center a happy man. I had just spent approximately sixteen hours—over the course of two days—in a gigantic room with strangers. We had frantically typed away at our laptops and meticulously filled in bubbles on a scantron sheet. We had to wear suits despite the sweltering temperatures in Roanoke. Mechanical pencils were banned. On top of all of this, the months leading up to the bar exam required quite a bit of studying, too. Ah, it was good to be done with the Virginia Bar Exam.
I am writing this post to try to provide some guidance to future bar exam takers, whether taking the bar in Virginia or in other states, and to share my experiences about the bar exam. I hope this post is useful and will help its readers have a realistic view of what the bar exam and the studying prior to the bar exam will be like.
First, a little background about myself so that readers realize that neither Albert Einstein nor Pee Wee Herman is writing this. In 2010, I graduated from a state law school (top 50 in US News, but not much better than top 50). As far as grades go, I did well in law school. I am clerking for a federal district judge, and I have a job at a firm after that. I consider myself to be a pretty conscientious student. However, I’m not some supergenius that can pass the bar after studying for a week. I didn’t pass law school due to brilliance, just a lot of hard work. I did not work during law school, and I entered law school immediately after college. I had a girlfriend/fiancee throughout law school as well as during bar prep. Now she is my wife. OK, enough about me.
To prepare for the bar, I signed up for Barbri as well as the PMBR three day prep course. I have heard that other bar courses are fine, too, but my firm was willing to foot the bill for these two courses, so I took them. If you’re paying for bar courses on your own, I’d recommend signing up for Barbri and skipping PMBR. More on these later.
Prior to taking the bar, I’d heard widely divergent stories from prior bar takers. Some people told me that they only studied for two weeks and passed. Many told me that they didn’t do anything except go to bar prep classes until July 4, and then started studying. Others told me they studied like crazy for two months and failed. Some graduates who finished near the bottom of their class passed. Some near the top failed. Some got up during the bar exam and ran out, never to be heard from again. And more.
I tried to extract some commonalities from all of this “bar-lore.” First, most people started studying much harder on July 4 than they did prior to this date. Second, most went to all of their bar prep classes (or watched them online). Third, most took Barbri as their bar prep course. Fourth, everyone studies in different ways. Fifth, the month of July, whether you studied hard in June or not, is pretty miserable, but June is not. Sixth, in general, if you take the bar exam seriously, you will pass.
BAR PREP COURSES AND MULTISTATE VERSUS STATE EXAMS
The first step in preparing for the bar is deciding whether you want to take a bar preparation course. I strongly advise doing so. Let me explain.
The choice between taking a bar prep course and not doing so is not like deciding whether to use a commercial outline for a course in law school. While you could decide not to use a commercial outline and get a high grade in a course (perhaps higher than if you used the commercial outline), that is because the amount of material you need to learn for a course is far smaller than what you need to know for the bar exam. The bar exam, at least in Virginia as well as a number of other states, will test you on a broad number of topics. For example, Virginia tests something like 22 areas of law on the bar exam. While you might remember your criminal procedure class from law school, do you know any Virginia law on the issue? Do you know anything about Virginia wills or domestic relations law? If you don’t, are you just going to read Virginia treatises and try to determine what is testable and study that? Are you going to study it all?
The bottom line is, it would be overwhelming for all but the smartest bar-takers to just learn all the law on your own. A bar exam prep course will help you by determining the law that is frequently tested or is testable on the exam and will teach you that. You’ll know that important information well, and you won’t be bogged down in stuff that is rarely going to appear on the exam. While there is of course a chance that something unusual could appear, since bar exams are curved, it’s not going to hurt you much not to know the answer to a totally random question.
If you decide to go without taking a bar prep course, you should, at the very least, buy some old Barbri books on eBay or from a friend. These books will likely contain all of the information you need to pass the bar exam, so long as they are not more than a year or two old (cutting edge law rarely makes its way onto the bar exam). Just remember that buying the books is not enough – you need to put in the time and learn the material from them — be disciplined!
As for which bar prep course to take, I can’t say I’m an expert on the topic. Most people—myself included—take Barbri. One advantage of taking Barbri is that you’ll learn the same material as a large percentage of test-takers in the state. Since in Virginia, for instance, the pass rate is around 70% for summer bar takers, so long as you learn most of what Barbri teaches you, you should finish in that top 70% threshold. In other words, Barbri provides you safety in numbers. While Barbri is pretty expensive, failing the bar and potentially being unemployed for months while you study again is pretty expensive, too.
Some people also supplement Barbri with PMBR. Basically, the word on the streets is that PMBR is better at teaching the “multistate” portion of the bar exam than Barbri. After taking the three-day version of PMBR, which consists of one sample multistate exam and two days of video review (I only took the exam on the first day and reviewed on my own, which I recommend if you do PMBR), I did not find PMBR to be critical to my bar study. Personally, if my firm didn’t pay for it, I would not have signed up for it.
Speaking of “multistate,” let me quickly mention the difference between the multistate and state portions of the bar exam. In most states, such as Virginia, there are two portions of the bar exam. The first day is generally the state testing day, in which state law is tested in essay and/or short answer form. In Virginia, the first day includes two three hour blocks, separated by a lunch break. In the first block of time you have to answer five essay questions. In the second block of time you have to answer four essay questions and twenty short answer questions. You can take this part of the exam on a laptop (which I highly recommend). The second day is generally the multistate testing day, where you have two three hour periods to take a 200 question multiple choice exam on multistate law (generally this means the majority rule in most jurisdictions) on the following topics: torts, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law/procedure, and real property.
My law school graduation was in mid-May, just two days after I turned in my last final exam. Freedom – for a short while. However, according to Barbri, I was supposed to start studying for the bar exam two days after graduation.
Barbri (as well as most other bar courses) assigns students a study program that tells them what they should be studying at certain times during the summer. Barbri calls this the “Paced Program.” I don’t think it is necessary to follow the Paced Program exactly, though it is useful to follow most of it. For example, the Paced Program may ask you to write four sample essays and take two multiple choice tests on a given day as well as outline your previous day’s notes. If I became too busy with other stuff (e.g. COA clerkship applications), I would shorten this by only taking one of the multiple choice tests and only two or three of the sample essays.
Anyway, right after graduation, Barbri told me that I was supposed to spend five days studying on my own, with each day taking a practice test (without studying for it) and then watching a video about the practice test. The idea of this week was to help prepare students for the types of questions they would see on the multistate portion of the bar exam and to give them a benchmark of where they would stand without studying. I figured that would only take a few hours per day, so I decided to do it. While taking the practice tests and reviewing my answers was helpful, watching videos where a professor discussed every single question and answer possibility was not, in my opinion, worth my time. So I took the practice tests and ignored the videos. On the sixth day, Barbri told me to take a practice 1/2 day of the multistate exam. I took the practice exam and reviewed my answers. That was the end of my first week of studying.
Overall, I’d say that it’s not critical to follow Barbri’s plan for the first week of studying on your own. While it provides some exposure to multistate questions, you’re going to get plenty of exposure over the next two months. So if you have time to do some studying that week, go for it. If not, it’s not a huge deal. You’ll be taking plenty of multistate practice questions over the next couple of months.
INTO THE CLASSROOM
One week after graduation, Barbri classes began. While law school classes, in my opinion, were both fun but often confusing, Barbri classes are super-boring (with some exceptions) but far from confusing. To put it another way, law school professors often hide the ball, whereas Barbri professors spoon-feed you the law.
Bar prep classes such as Barbri teach you all of the subjects you’ll need to know for the bar exam—both the state and multistate portions. However, while you’ll learn something about all of the subjects on the bar exam, the quality of the professors is not consistent. Some professors are clearly better than others at teaching the testable material. However, despite the fact that some professors are not so good, I do not recommend supplementing your Barbri (or whatever course you’re taking) with outside material.
Why shouldn’t you supplement what you learn in Barbri with outside material? There is certainly a temptation to try to learn as much as you can before the bar exam. In law school, if you know more about the tested materials than anyone else, you’ll get a higher grade. Why not the same rationale for the bar? Well, first, the bar is a minimal competency exam. Your goal is to show the bar examiners that you are a reasonably competent lawyer, not show them that you know tons and tons of trivia about the law. In other words, you write the four-part test that you learned, you analyze it, and you move on. Don’t give legislative history, don’t explain why the rule is coherent with legal theory, don’t throw in extra stuff. Second, the bar is pseudo-curved, as I mentioned before. If you learn all of the stuff that Barbri teaches you as well as the average person that took Barbri, then you’ll pass the bar, since so many people take Barbri. In fact, if a lot of people miss a question on the multistate exam, the examiners will often throw out the question so you get no credit for it whether you got it correct or incorrect. Thus, if you just answer the questions in the way the average Barbri student would answer, you’ll likely get sufficient credit for your response. Third, you are going to have to memorize a ton of information to pass the bar exam. If you try to cram extra stuff in your head, it’s going to be even more difficult to memorize the information that is frequently tested. In short, don’t supplement your bar prep course materials (unless you’re taking a really sketchy bar prep course… but if you are, that’s another problem).
Should you go to (or watch online) all of your bar prep course’s classes? In my opinion, yes. While not all of the professors for Barbri (or other bar prep courses) are of high quality, hearing the information presented to you in class will help you start the memorization process. And if you can’t make it to the classroom for the course, Barbri, along with many other bar prep courses, allow you to watch the lectures online. During 2010, Barbri posted videos online for students to view at noon on the day they were to play in class. I’m sure this schedule might differ upon the state that you have Barbri, but that was how it worked in Virginia.
Also, if you’re watching a professor that really sucks, there is a trick you can use if you are on a Windows computer. According to this Abovethelaw post, you can watch lectures at 1.5x speed if you do the following:
1. Start the lecture.
2. Double click on the video to make it full-screen.
3. Hold down control + shift + G, and it will play at a faster speed. To put it back to normal speed, hit control + shift + N.
Although I have a Mac, I did use Boot Camp to run Windows for this trick on two particular lecturers whom I found to be less than effective.
UPDATE: In 2011, some have reported the Barbri 1.5x speed-up trick as stated above does not work. As I am no longer studying for the bar, I don’t know whether this is true or false. If you happen to know more about this issue, or how to fix it, please post a comment below.
In law school, I spent 1 to 1.5 hours after each class outlining the material from class so that I could comprehend how everything fit together and so I could really understand the law. The two main purposes of outlining, to me, were to deeply comprehend the material and to memorize the material (and, for open book exams, as a reference for the exam). However, in law school, when I really needed to memorize material, I made flash cards to drill the information into my brain.
For the bar exam, Barbri suggests that each student outline the material after each class. I don’t think that is a great idea, so I didn’t do it. This is because the material really isn’t hard to learn; as I mentioned before, it’s spoon-fed to you. Moreover, Barbri provides you with two outlines for each area of law, a long outline and a condensed outline, and for some subjects, a super-condensed outline. As a result, the main thing that you need to do for the bar is memorize the material. Thus, I went straight to making flashcards.
The first two days of class, I made physical flashcards on 3×5 index cards. That was a mistake. My wrist really hurt, and I used an entire pen worth of ink in making the flash cards (seriously). It also took four hours per day to make the flash cards.
After that, I decided to make digital flashcards that I could review on my old 1G iPod Touch. The program I used was called iFlash. iFlash works on a Mac and an iPhone or iPod Touch. I’m sure that there are windows programs and programs that work for Android phones as well. iFlash cost $14.95, but it was well worth it.
iFlash allows you to type up flashcards on your computer, import them to your iPod Touch or iPhone, and review them on there or on your computer. iFlash is a gigantic upgrade from making paper flashcards for several reasons: (1) typing is much faster than handwriting, so typing up flashcards saved me over an hour per day; (2) you can share digital flashcards with others easily, so if you decide to study with friends, iFlash makes it easy; (3) digital flashcards are far easier to carry around than the 1,000+ flashcards you’d have to carry around if you made paper cards, and you can review them anywhere; and (4) you can make audio versions of your flashcards to review while you’re in the car if you have them in a digital format.
My recommendation for studying is to basically just try to follow the Barbri paced plan. Go to class, make flashcards for that class, try to do a couple state essay questions or Multistate Practice Question (“MPQ”) question sets each night. Then, every weekend, try to review all of your flashcards. I never actually got through memorizing all of my flashcards in a single weekend. I was able to scan through them all if I wanted, but if I tried to actually memorize each one, it wasn’t happening, even the week before the bar. Also, once again, while it’s important to try to follow the paced plan, it’s not necessary. I didn’t finish all of the assignments on it, but I still passed.
Although I think that reviewing flashcards is the most important part of the bar studying process, I think that reviewing essay questions is important. Some areas of law are hard to get a good grasp of without actually writing out an answer, so taking a crack at a number of essay questions can be helpful.
CRANKING UP IN JULY
No matter how much you study during the early part of the bar exam process, you’re probably going to be worried about your situation in July. Some of the sample essay questions you’ll do will include information that you’ve never seen before (that’s normal – learn it but don’t freak out about it), your MPQ scores might not be as high as you’d like, your friends might be freaking you out, whatever. In any event, July will become a much busier and more stressful month. While it’s not a bad idea to work harder in July to get ready for the exam, know that everyone is feeling freaked out just like you. Although you feel like you’re going to fail, it’s not nearly as inevitable as you might think (I wish I could say that you’re not going to fail, but there’s no guarantee everyone will pass the bar, but the chance of failing is not nearly as certain as you’ll think in July).
That said, DON’T PROCRASTINATE. If you skip a bunch of your classes and try to learn subjects on the bar exam from the ground up the week before the exam, it’s going to freak you out and hurt your studying on other subjects. At the very least, go to all of your classes or watch them online so that you have exposure to all of the subjects before the last days before the exam. I know it’s not “cool” to study hard for the bar exam, but it’s also not cool to fail. Just take it seriously and you’ll be fine.
Through the bar study process, in May, June, and even July, you should not give up your life for the bar exam. Throughout the process, I made sure to keep exercising six days per week for about one hour per day. I took time off each week to see my then-fiancee and to plan a wedding. I’d say that during May and June, I really only studied—class included—for about 40-45 hours per week. Of course, in July, that number increased quite a bit, but on average, I did far less studying than I did in law school.
I think that it’s totally possible to study way less than I did and still pass. However, that might also be a very good way to lose a lot of nights of sleep prior to the date the bar results come out. I’m much happier studying harder and being confident of passing than fudging my studying and hoping that everything works out. That said, I’m glad I didn’t live in the library during the summer. There’s no reason to put in 80 hour weeks when studying for the bar, unless you overly procrastinate and force yourself to do that.
THE EXAM EXPERIENCE
To be frank, taking the bar exam really sucks. If you take the Virginia bar exam in July, you’ll take it in Roanoke, Virginia, a town in southwest Virginia that’s not very close to the population centers of Virginia. It’s about four hours from Northern Virginia, for instance. Roanoke is not a terrible town, it’s just sort of out of the way.
The exam experience starts by driving to Roanoke. I advise listening to lots of relaxing or loud music, whatever is best for calming you down. Don’t just sit in silence or try to listen to audio study tools or anything like that; it will just make you nervous. I think you should just drive down and try to have the best time you can.
When you get to your hotel / bed and breakfast / etcetera, I recommend getting in, then going for a walk or something. Don’t sit around and study for the night. Studying the day before this exam is really just going to freak you out. I went to dinner with a few friends. I was too nervous to eat much. After eating dinner, I went for a short walk. The walk helped calm my nerves a bit, as did talking on the phone with family and friends. I tried to stay away from as many law students as I could except for calm ones. I advise not hanging around students who are going to quiz you on exam topics or be amazed when you haven’t memorized all of page 37 of Barbri’s civil procedure outline.
Try to go to bed early. You’ll be nervous, so it’s not a bad idea to take sleep medicine or drink some herbal tea if that works for you. I surprisingly slept very well the night before the first day of the bar exam.
In the morning, do whatever relaxes you. I went for a 45 minute run and showered. I tried to eat some breakfast, but could not get much down due to nerves. Then I drove early to the convention center so I would not have to worry about being late.
Once you get to the convention center, you’ll wait in a gigantic line before being “checked-in” and sent to your seat. Most people will be in a gigantic room with hundreds of other bar takers. When you get there, get to your seat, sit down, and get your computer booted up (assuming you’re using your computer to take the exam; I think you’d be a fool not to type it). Then, await your instructions, and get ready for the test.
The first day of the exam is essay questions. You’ll have half of the questions in the morning session, then lunch, then half of the questions in the afternoon. I was most nervous for the essay exam because I feared that there might be questions I knew nothing about. As it turns out, there was only one question I had never heard of. For the others, I answered them confidently, just like I had answered my Barbri practice questions. For the question I knew nothing about, I just made up the law, applied my made-up law, and came to a conclusion. E.g. “X should prevail in this motion. In the Commonwealth, to do A, X must satisfy (1) L; (2) M; and (3) N. Here, X satisfied each element [explanation]. Thus, X will prevail.” Note: YOU WILL GET POINTS for analysis if you do this. If you write nothing because you don’t know the law, you will get zero points. You want points, so if you get stumped, just make something up and provide good analysis.
Another note: Virginia is really proud of the fact that it is the “Commonwealth” of Virginia, not the “State” of Virginia. Don’t call it a state, refer to it as “the Commonwealth.” I’ve heard you actually may lose points for using the word “state” instead of “Commonwealth.”
After the first day is over, you will likely be much less nervous. Have some dinner. I pigged out a bit after the first day, as I was famished from not eating much in the morning or at lunch. Feel free to hang out with friends, but I recommend staying away from types that will quiz you on how you did on the essay questions. That will only shake your confidence and make you worried about how you did on the first day. Then, go back to wherever you are staying, go for a walk, and do whatever relaxes you, and then go to sleep.
Day two is multiple-choice, multistate questions (the MBE). Some people prefer the essay questions over the multistate questions. I’m not sure which I preferred, but I was much less nervous by the time I got to the MBE, so I enjoyed it more. Like the state essay questions on day one, the MBE is divided into two parts: one in the morning, then lunch, then one part in the afternoon.
The MBE is full of easy questions, and it is also full of trick questions. The only advice I can give on the MBE is as follows. First, you’ll likely be fine as long as you drilled lots of sample MBE questions during your study time. Second, DON’T freak out about missing one or two questions. You can miss nearly half of the questions and receive a passable score on the MBE. That means you should KEEP MOVING, and don’t spend lots of time on one question. Read the question, answer it if you know it, and guess if you don’t. You can mark your pages to come back and think about hard questions later if you finish early (I finished about 30 minutes early and checked over a number of questions I was uncertain about).
Another thing: lots of people thought it was just swell to leave the exam early. On the MBE, many people left the exam an hour or more early. I don’t understand why someone would find this to be a good idea. You can, and should, spend your extra time checking over your answers (or taking your time on the questions you are answering to avoid trick questions). Imagine if you fail the exam because you missed a couple of MBE questions that you did not read carefully so that you could leave the exam early. Are you going to be glad you had an extra hour to drive home? The bar is really important to pass – it’s worth one final hour of your time.
I wish you all the best of luck preparing for the bar exam. It’s a stressful experience, but so long as you don’t procrastinate, and you take the exam seriously, you will be fine.