Law and Software

Passing the California Bar Exam

[November, 2012] By Andy Bartlett. Filed under: law

I have some strong opinions about how to get a passing score on the California Bar Exam. Or at least, how I got a passing score. And it wasn’t by being whipped into shape by an all-knowing barprep company. If you didn’t pass – or if you are still to take it, maybe these comments will save you some pain.

Should I choose Barbri? or Kaplan? or Themis?

First, I don’t think your choice of barprep company matters. You choose what you choose. And you will fail (or pass) whichever you choose. Just remember that all the companies are for-profit businesses. And their business model requires people to sign up next year, and the year after. They have to create a need as well as a desire. Whether or not you pass has little to do with their business strategy. But if you fail, it is important for the companies that you do not see it as their fault.

Why the Bar Exam Performance Tests matter

For a passing score, you need to do well in one of the three sections (Essay, Performance Test or MBE) and ok in one other. So the barprep companies strategy is to get you to do well on the MBE and ok on essays simply because you did them at law school. And go through the motions with the PTs. Trouble is, they don’t teach the MBE well enough. I did the simulateds from all three (and scored well) and was shocked how simplistic they all were compared to the actual MBE, which was “challenging.”  You risk ending up doing  just ok on the MBE and finding you need to shine at one of the other two.

I took John Holtz’s Performance Test workshop. Very intense, very thorough. And he gave me the big picture. What the performance test was all about. What the examiners are looking for. How to organize your time in the test. Strategy and tactics. He didn’t get us to do a test badly and somehow osmotically work out why we did worse than some example that did it right. He switched on the light. I’m not on commission. I just don’t think I would have passed the bar exam without his workshop.

Bar Exam Essays are so hard…

This all made me very uneasy about the essays. I could see the big picture for the PTs. The essays were just scary and confusing. And the reference essays published by the state bar were way better than anything I could write. Nobody told me that these were probably written by out-of-state attorneys taking the “Attorney’s Exam.” And that I shouldn’t freak out.

Two weeks from the exam, I discovered a book that had just been published. “Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam”  by Basick and Schindler, published by Aspen – a 950 page analysis that isn’t a Dummies Guide for panicking bar takers. Its a carefully written academic book. None of the confidence building chatter that fills most of the barprep books. This one is a keeper. For ALL of the California subjects, it takes a number of previous exam essay questions, it analyses them in terms of issues and rules and shows how you suck out all the issues the examiners are looking for and how you build your answer. It does not hide the ball. It does not pretend any of this is easy. And it is systematic. I got it with one-day delivery from Amazon, and dropped all other bar-prep for those last two weeks. I just read and reread that book.

Three things to remember

So my advice to anyone who is planning to take (or retake) the California Bar Exam is

1) Take John’s workshop

2) buy the Basick book and spend as much time as you need to work through it – even if your completion percentages on the barprep company’s online health meter starts to suffer, and

3) don’t believe the good scores you get when you take the simulated MBE tests. Assume that however high they are, they will probably just give you an “OK” score.

If you understand what you are doing during those three days, you are on the way to passing. Be prepared to step off the barprep treadmill if you seem to be going nowhere fast.

And if you are not enjoying what you are doing, ask yourself why the company is making your life a misery.

Good luck in February and in June.


[April 2014] I’ve helped a number of friends over this ordeal since I took the bar exam. Mostly retakes in a state of shock.  And there’s one extra piece of advice – which worked well for me, and has worked for others. First the motherhood: think of this like a race. Now what that means: you are not trying to get your best times during practice. You don’t want to burn out. You want to be sure you are at your peak on the day.

Preparing for a race, you don’t spend your time running races. You find warm-up exercises and do them regularly. Rather than write endless bad essays and hope that they will get better the more you do, try taking a simple MBE question, and write a single “essay paragraph” to answer that question. Get used to using “because” by writing a few sentences on a single issue, regularly and often. When you look through all the past essays, don’t focus on the writing – do a short 10 minute “read and outline” practice. And then look at the sample answers – did you “hit” all the points.

And the same with the performance tests. Rather than spend all afternoon writing endless deathless prose, why not spend 90 minutes sharpening your reading/analysis and issue-spotting – then look at the “plan” and say “could I write something good if I had 90 minutes more.” And put your outline to one side for a couple of days – then come back to it fresh and see if it is good enough.

For the MBE, remember that the collections of practice questions are edited. And your brain does get used to the editor – and the style of question. If you are doing Barbri, get some Kaplan and Themis questions. The red and blue Emanuel “Strategies and Tactics” books are good – not so much for the questions as the answers. Just because you get a question right doesn’t mean you understand completely, so reading the explanations might slip in an extra fact that – wow – is the one that gets tested.

Lots of short exercises – be inventive, make it fun. Pain avoidance – this is not some masochistic forced march. You need adrenaline on the day, not meds. And don’t hand over responsibility to your bar prep company and focus too much on their “progress” evaluation. You are not failing if you are doing things your way, being different, thinking like a lawyer.



2 Responses to “Passing the California Bar Exam”

  1. Laya Says:

    Love your advice.

    I am a first time california bar taker.

    I have been using the strategies and tactics mbe book and really like the answer explanations.

    I also just attended Prof Holtz PT class this past weekend and found it very good for the “big picture” but wished we actually went through an entire pt from start to finish (but i know we didn’t have enough time for that)

    I was wondering if you had any advice regarding CIV PRO PRACTICE MC Q’s. I am using bar max for studying the black letter law and they have literally 7 civ pro questions.


  2. admin Says:

    I think the idea of John’s class is that he shows you how best to spend the 90 mins prep time before you write. I hope it served you well this year. Sorry. I don’t know about barmax. Fingers crossed you cross the line in November.

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