Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Passing the BAR Exam. Tips I Still Remember.

This weekend, the results for California February 2013 Bar Exam came out. The news reminded me of my own experience with this formidable exercise and I decided to "reduce to writing" what, in my opinion, were for me the most important tips for winning this game.

First, realize that this exam is just as much about the knowledge of the law as it is about the delivery and showcasing that knowledge of the law. It is akin to an athletic sport event: each of the sessions is timed, there is a considerable competition, the applicants must show good speed in reading, comprehending, issue-spotting, writing, and even sometimes formatting the material. You must follow the rules and not to upset numerous referees (both those who are with you on the field and who will judge your responses later). There is a marathon element: an exam-taker must endure on a 3-day run, be sharp and ready to start early each morning and not to get off the track until the finish line, late in the afternoon. There is also a similarity with gymnastics: you don't just jump the hoops, you have to make it look presentable.

What does it mean? It means that the ones who are more dedicated and ones who practice more will more likely prevail, comparing with those who just know the substance, yet haven't trained themselves enough to quickly spit the substance out, on the moment's order. Continuing our analogy with a sport, say a triathlon competition—everyone can learn the game's rules in an hour, and in a couple more hours memorize in fine detail, all what an athlete must do in order to win. But nobody would think though that such knowledge increases one's chances in actually winning the triathlon. The same is true here. Yes, learning the substantive part for the bar exam will take a considerably larger number of hours, weeks even, than that for triathlon, but, without practicing on delivery, this knowledge will have no use, it won't be applied, at least not promptly. It will then worth almost nothing to know the entire body of the tested subjects and still flank the test. I say "almost," because there is some value: you can spend less time on learning the law while preparing for the next exam.

So, the first advice I heeded was to practice, practice, practice. Write 2-3 essays and run at least 50 MBE questions per each day, with no exceptions. Quit doing anything elseunless you are a genius, you can't become ready if you are preparing only "part-time." For at least two months before the exam, withdraw from every other branch of your life, entirely. When I was on my training course, I haven't even seen my kids. There is no spare timeif it is true that 10,000 hours of practicing makes you to excel at performing a given task, it only makes sense to contribute toward your exam's performance all the hours you've got. You will only squeeze about 200 hours per month anyway, so don't lose any.

Second practical point I've got was regarding ways to increase my performance in delivering written essays. We are all given the same limited time, which only means that those who manage it well will win over know-it-alls, who failed to promptly unload their vast knowledge. These tips are purely mechanic, have nothing to do with the law: (a) type your answers (no handwriting); (b) use CAPs for the headings, no underlining, no boldface, no italics, because only capitalizing letters takes one button to press on the keyboard, the rest takes two or more (Shift + some other button); (c) use shortest sentences possible and short paragraphs/sections too; (d) always start with an outline, a minute spent on outlining saves 10 minutes from unstructured fleshing-out and from working with the headings and sections after-the-fact (plus, if you failed to add flesh to all sections, you would at least have demonstrated some knowledge and understanding by your headings; this may still bring you a point or two).

Memory tricks. Mnemonics are great and some are very helpful, but you can't rely solely on that tool. Some material needs to be memorized in a considerably large amount than just few words. My solution for remembering it was geographical: I used different parts of the city for studying different topics. Pacific Beach was for Real Property, Golden Gate Bridge for Contracts, Divisadero for Wills and Trusts, and so on. I would walk the area, with my lecture playing on a phone, and look around while listening. Do it twice or trice and your "memory palace" will get filled with strong associations between the rules and the sights seen. This way I was able to store inside all the subjects, and most of it remained in the head long afterwards.

A good essay is nothing more but a set of IRAC blocks, one per topic or a spotted issue. Those topics then get a chain of their own IRAC sub-topics and sub-issues. Everybody knows that. But in the light of a time-pressed competition, two factors become most useful: having each block as short and concise as possible (you spend less time writing it at the exam and the reviewer will get less tired to read through your work afterwards), and being able to form these blocks quick. How to practice that? Get a habit of forming an IRAC about anything you observe around yourself, at any free moment you get. If on a break you come outside from your study room and notice a need to put sunglasses on, shape this out: "Every time I take a break outside, I need my sunglasses (I) Sunglasses are used to shield eyes from direct sunlight (R). I study during the day, so my breaks are at the time when the sun is up. (A1) I study inside, so I need to come outside to get fresh air. (A2) Because I come outside during the break while the sun is up and I have to shield my eyes, I need to put sunglasses on. (C)" In your essay, some arguments will be less important than the other. For a passing, side comment, you can jam all IRAC in one sentence, like: "I use the sunglasses during outside breaks, because the sun is up, I need to protect my eyes, and the sunglasses help me to shield my eyes from the sun." Try constantly to describe the basic life around and you will soon become a quick-wit IRAC-er. This alone will save you some critical minutes at the exam, but the benefits don't stop there—later in your career you will often need to churn out a good set of arguments in a minimal amount of time, and this technique will be a lifesaver.

Get a trainer. Athletes, even world champions, don't do it on their own, they use all the help they can get. I personally studied under these two great instructors: Professor Emerson Stafford and a former Bar Exam grader, Mr. John H. Crossfield II. If not for them, I won't be an attorney today. I also used two bar-review courses: BarPassers and Themis. Bar review courses are good for summarizing the law, but personal instructors are invaluable for training you into an exam-taker, so don't just rest with one solution, have a combination! Couple with a fellow student to quiz each other on a given topic at the end of each day, this will be an extremely valuable exercise: it will provide you with a stress-relieving "group therapy," knowing you are not the only one struggling with the material; it will help you remember tough points, because either you or your partner won't get it right without some repetition and digging it through; it will provide you with a helpful memory picture for a discussed subject; and it will give you a chance to repeat and review a topic yet another time.

The "training" is not limited to just practicing essayspractice to type in general. If you are a slow typist, start typing away, write anything, this will help you to get a better speed and also will increase a chance you will become a blind or a semi-blind typist, a great advantage, when you can look somewhere else (at the given essay or your draft notes), while typing the response.

There are also two very useful books: for essay writing, it is "The Bar Code," and for the MBE it is "Strategies and Tactics for the MBE," or so-called the Red Book [do not spend your time and money on the companion Blue Book, or "Volume 2," though]. These two books must be reviewed on a daily basis, until their pages are imprinted in your head. I was not letting these two out of my hands.

My personal hint on the MBE portionwhen you are done with dotting the answers on your card and still have some time left, look at the resulting picture your responses "drew" as a whole. If you see any patterns too symmetrical, or if there are, say, five or six same-letter answers in a row, chances are, some of these answers are wrong. They may be correct, but worth a re-visit.

Start and keep a log of things, things that really surprised you during your studies: some hard-to-remember rule of law, an unexpected holding, a good quote, a sample MBE question with an answer seemingly opposite to any common sensewrite all these "quirks" down. This list may not be copied or purchased from somewhere, it will only work and fit your personal state of mind and your knowledge of subjects. Often, during the studying time, and every morning before the exam, review the list, get these "a-ha" lightbulbs into your head and keep them there. This will be a very helpful tool. My list ran for many pages. I was writing it as a regular text document and then quickly converting it to an e-book, at least once a day, so I could read it on my phone when I am not studying at my desk. I used a free software "Calibre" for making the e-book and for uploading it to my phone. To read it, I used Moon+ Reader app. Worked perfectly, and, by writing and editing my list, I was memorizing (and even understanding) the rules only better.

How to get better at Performance Tests ("PTs"). These are much harder to practice, because they each take an enormous chunk of time. In other words, practicing on writing PTs is time-expensive, almost cost-prohibitive. Many students miss them, either by underestimating these tests or by deliberately skipping practicing them. On the other hand, PTs give you a big portion of the final score, and, since some of your competition will skip or fail them, why not to get some gain by returning a score-bearing PT? Start with familiarizing yourself with a day-to-day legal writing in the forms similar to the ones ordered at the PTs. If you don't have other sources, consider For instance, if the assignment is to write a "Motion to Dismiss," look at some samples of real motions, written in real cases. Scan through it, and you will get a feeling of what is generally expected in the MTD, what kind of common structure a motion has, how the parts are connected. Then try to write your own. Don't just try to copy the model answer given in the study-book, get the sense of how the industry does it. Many exam takers do not have an experience of drafting real legal documents, but the Internet is overloaded with real-life samples and so eliminates the excuse. For PTs, just think outside a textbook and you will score well.

It may sound obvious, but try and test the exam software after you installed it, become familiar with it. If you are going to see it for the first time at the exam, it, at best, will cost you some time spent while you will be looking for formatting options or how to activate a spellcheck. Worth, it may impede your delivery, causing some or all of your writing to be lost as unsaved or to remain unnoticed as poorly formatted.

Finally, don't forget that the presentation is everything. Your product will be reviewed in a very summary manner, so it is up to you to make your thoughts to "jump into the face" of a reader-examiner. I mentioned shorter sentences before, but don't just drop them cut and dry, make them chained in some variation of the IRAC, and do these little IRACs to line up under separate headings, so they will all contribute into a bigger IRAC, fitting your already-written outline.

Good Luck! And if you are sitting for the next exam, stop wasting your counted hours on reading blogs!

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