Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Remember the Marathon Runner: My experience on passing the Illinois bar exam

I realize that each bar study experience is unique. This is what I did to pass the Illinois bar exam. I know this means that there are some people reading this that will have fundamental disagreements with what I am saying. I am not saying that other things will not work. This is what worked for me.

1. I took Barbri: I attended all but two of the lectures (which I watched online).

2. I initially followed Barbri's instructions to the letter: After the two weeks, I started to see what was working and what was not working. I gave Barbri's tactics a chance. I reassessed at each practice test whether Barbri's tools were working, and reassessed again after the midpoint practice MBE.

3. I used other materials besides Barbri study aids: A friend of mine had lent me Kaplan PMBR books. When she gave them to me, I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them. The 30 pound stack of Barbri book seemed more than adequate to teach me everything I knew. However, after the midpoint practice MBE, I was seriously afraid of Failing The Bar. Thus, in addition to Barbri's schedule of practice MBEs, I added 50 more MBEs each night.

What did not work:
a. Barbri's outline format: I quickly determined that the Barbri outlines, while comprehensive, were not sticking in my brain. I was pretty sure this would be the case before I started studying, because I was never a list-outline-studier in law school. Rather, I was a chart-maker and chart-studier. After I discovered the outlines were not working, I started making charts for every topic on every subject that was in the outline. I used the outlines for the substantive material that was placed into my charts.

b. Barbri's comprehensive books: Barbri creates a several hundred page outline for the big topics: These outlines were daunting and not useful to me. I didn't study them unless something confused me on the outline which was completed in class that day.

c. Using my law school materials for bar study: Unrelated to Barbri, but attempting to use these materials just made me panicked and confused. I was one of those perfectionist law students. Thus, my initial mindset was that I had to "ace" the bar exam. This is the attitude that will make you fail the bar. You really only need a "C" on the bar exam, and if you strive for higher than that, you will undoubtedly stress yourself out to the point of Pure Panicked Crazy Bar Exam Studier.

What worked:
a. Barbri outlines, in fill-in-format, for lecture: At the very least, the fill-in-format kept me from falling asleep.

b. Seven million mnemonic devices: Barbri gives some pretty helpful mnemonic devices. I also created my own where I felt it was required.

c. Practice MBE questions: See below regarding other materials used. As I discuss below about the Thing I am Most Afraid Of, one of these was the MBE portion in its entirety. Thus, I did as many MBE questions as I could get my hands on. After each MBE set (after I read the explanations of the answers), I would make a hand-written list of all of the questions I got wrong, with the right answer. Then, before I did a new set the next day, I would read my list of incorrect answers. I think what most people discover if they do this is that they consistently get the same questions wrong. Even if you think you're getting different questions wrong, they are most likely the same kinds of questions, packaged in a new way.

d. Practice essays and MPTs: I did as many practice essays as I could get my hands on. I attempted to do more essays on topics I was most afraid of. This was my mantra all through law school and did not end at the bar exam. I sat down and really thought about this question: What question, if asked on the bar exam, am I the most afraid of? I then spent time seeking out essays in the essay book (they were there, of course) that answered these questions.

e. Practice MBEs: As much as they seemed like the last thing I wanted to do, those practice MBEs really placed me in real-world conditions. I never did very well on the practice MBEs, which knocked my confidence down to the point where I knew I had to keep studying or I would fail.

Here are some common questions/concerns that people have while studying for the bar:
1. Should I take a bar prep class offered at my school? I didn't. I know people that did, and they still passed the bar. I'm not sure if it helps one way or another. My approach was to take the time given to me during the 9 weeks before the bar exam to focus on the bar exam. I spent the time before that on studying for law school exams (yes I still studied as a last-semester 3L), moving into a new apartment, and looking for a job. I knew that if bar study was anything like the way people had described it, I would be tired enough of studying by the end of the 9 weeks. I didn't need an additional semester to stress over the impending doom of the bar exam.

2. How many hours a day should I be studying? This is different for everyone. On lecture days, I studied 2 hours before lecture and 4 hours after lecture. On non-lecture days, I tried to put in a solid 8 hours, minimum. After Barbri ended, I broke my days into 3 4 hour periods, with a schedule of topics to review at each period. Example:

Morning: 50 MBEs, review MBE & write out wrong answers.
afternoon: Review Agency & Partnership
Agency & Partnership Essays
Evening: Review Conflict of Laws
Conflict of Laws essays

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a schedule, and to be ok with breaking your schedule if something goes awry. For example, I distinctly remember that there were some topics I could not spend 2 solid hours reviewing. There just was not that much material. These topics I focused more on making sure I understood how to reason out an essay. There were other topics that, after reviewing for days, I still could not, from memory, reason out an essay. In this case, I took my charts (remember I made charts from each outline) and reasoned through some essays with the charts visible. Attempting to trick yourself does not help you in the long run if you cannot remember what a secure transaction is (for example).

3. How do I handle the stress?
This is different for everyone. I was told not to give things up that you did in law school. This was a unique experience for me, because I moved back to my home city right before the bar, so NOTHING was the same. I made sure that I had some relaxation time each morning and each night. Also, I made sure I got a solid 8 hours of sleep a night. Also, if you are a person who is easily stressed out by the stress of others, I would recommend not attending Barbri lecture. However, if you do attend lecture, and you hear other people talking about how easy it is to study for the bar, be aware that everyone is a Filthy Liar. People handle stress in different ways. Some people lie and tell people the bar exam is easy.

4. How do I explain to my family members that I am studying for the bar?
My strategy was to ease into this. Honestly, you're not going to be sweating and panicking on your first day of studying, or even your first month. If you are, please save that for the last 4 weeks before the bar. I attended engagements with friends and family up to the last 4 weeks, within reason. However, every time I saw them, I made sure to talk about how much time studying was taking up. Furthermore, I prepared them for the fact that, come July 5th, they should not be concerned if they didn't hear from me. This worked for me, but I was also away in Michigan for 3 years in law school so I think most of my family and friends were used to me rejecting their invitations in favor of studying.

Here is my bar exam speech: The bar exam is horrible for everyone. From what I've been told, it's even more horrible if you fail and have to re-take it. It may seem like you're studying forever, but it's only 9 weeks. 9 weeks and you get to be a lawyer forever. If you are taking the bar in the summer, you're missing one summer for the rest of your life.

The dean of my law school hung these posters, in every law school classroom the week before finals. They said "Remember the Marathon Runner." Underneath, there was a picture of men in suits running to the finish line. After surviving the bar exam I can tell you that bar study is your marathon training, and the bar exam is the actual marathon. Studying for the exam is test of endurance, courage, strength, and diligence.

I can also tell you that if you walk into the bar exam as prepared as you can possibly be, the most scary part of the actual exam is the energy of everyone else panicking. But it won't be you panicked, because you will have already trained for the marathon, and will be ready to cross the finish line.

Please feel free to email me (or comment) with questions!


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