By now, most of the three people who read my blog know that I, Matthew S. [Last Name Removed for Google Reasons], passed the February 2007 Michigan Bar Exam! I was one of the lucky ones who passed it on my Very First Try, and I am, frankly, quite shocked about that. You see, the bar exam was hard as hell. It was literally The Most Difficult Test I have ever taken, in my entire life. It was harder than law school exams, by far, because with exams you have the opportunity to study for one particular topic all semester, cram, take the test, and promptly forget what you learned to make room for the next topic. Oh, plus you generally get to use your notes. (Yeah, law school exams are mostly open book.) More importantly, in most instances, you actually took the course you are studying for. NONE of this necessarily applies to the bar exam.
You have to study for everything at once. You start studying two months beforehand. There are so many topics, you have just a few days to focus on each. Everything might be fresh in your mind while you're actually studying it, and maybe even while you're studying the next topic, but several weeks later? You have to review just to keep things fresh -- and by the time you review, you have already forgotten several of details. Everything has to be memorized -- mnemonic devices become your best friend. And, oh yeah by the way, you're going to have to learn several important topics (sales, wills and trusts, worker's compensation and no-fault law, etc.) that you never actually studied in law school. You see, law students mostly take courses that appeal to them. I took several courses in communications law, because that is the kind of law I want to practice. Communications law is NOT tested on the bar. Yet law students forego courses on tested bar subjects, with the throwaway line, "I'll learn it for the bar." It is extremely difficult to learn a new topic, from scratch, in the span of just a few days -- and that is really all the time you have to focus on any given topic.
You have to do everything -- review, relearn and memorize everything you studied several years ago in law school; as well as learn the fundamentals and crucial details and exceptions of topics which you have never studied before -- in the span of approximately two months.
Oh, another thing: No one knows exactly how to study. What is the best way to learn things? Should you read the BarBri outline? Make your own? Make flashcards? How about practice problems? Should you spend your time on multiple-choiced Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) questions, or on state-specific essay questions? How long will you spend on each? Which topics should you focus on? There are NO right answers to this. You just devise a plan of action, and stick to it, and hope that it pays off.
It is a singular task, one unlike any other (except, possibly, the analogous test in other professions -- passing the medical boards, for instance). No one is fully prepared for the amount of studying that awaits them, and no one is fully prepared upon walking into the cavernous testing room. It is impossible to know everything. You just hope that you know enough. You don't know how much is enough. You study 12 hours a day as the exam approaches. And when the Big Day comes, you just try to do the best you can.
The test is designed to make you feel as stupid as possible. The MBE consists of 200 questions, the kind of question that might be known as a "story problem" to elementary schoolers. They give you a scenario -- a few sentences or paragraphs describing a recent encounter someone had with the police, a bit of evidence that an attorney wants to get in at trial, a property transfer gone awry -- and they ask you a question about it. Was the impromptu police investigation constitutional? Can the evidence legally be admitted? Who owns the property? You have three hours to do 100 questions. Break for lunch. Repeat. That's 1.8 minutes per question, on average. Some people finish an hour early, and walk out with a smug look on their face while the rest of us are sweating. Some of us take every last second to re-read and consider the problems. It's usually pretty easy to narrow it down to two possible answers, but choosing between those is usually a coin toss. That's why you only need to get 135 correct out of 200 to pass the MBE -- the examiners know it's hard, and they don't require anywhere near perfection. A "D" will do.
The essay questions are even worse. You have to remember every rule, every test, every crime, every element, and every exception -- whether or not you ever took the course. Of course, you don't have to remember everything, and it is truly impossible. But you have to study everything, and hope that you can remember enough to score 100 points out of a possible 150. Every state does it differently, but in Michigan, there are 15 questions, each worth 10 points. You can handwrite them or you can type them. On a typewriter. I chose to type, and was relegated to a room with 17 other intrepid typers, some of them trying to figure out how to put in their correct tape. (Maybe Michigan will one day join the ranks of states that actually offer their essays on computer.)
The point is, this was a hard goddamn test, and I was positive I had failed. After the first day -- essays -- a friend asked what I plan to do after the bar exam. My response? "Start studying for the July bar." All I could remember from the day were the three essays I completely bombed. I knew I had done okay on the other essays, but I also knew that in order to make up for the three below-average essays, I would have to have at least three above-average essays too -- maybe even get a perfect score on one. Ha! That was impossible! Confident that I had failed the essays, I knew I had to score a 150 on the MBE, which in Michigan means you "multistate out," and the examiners won't even score your essays. The MBE score is scaled (to correct for questions that are unreasonably hard and most people get wrong), so I could conceivably get, say, a 130 raw and maybe have it scaled up to 150. But I knew the odds of my doing that well on the MBE were abysmal, considering I had never scored that highly in practice tests.
So you can imagine my surprise when I learned, early this week, that I had passed! The scores were sent to my uncle's house, which was the address I had registered with the state bar (mail sent to my home in Michigan would almost certainly get lost). He read me the letter over the phone. "Are you kidding me?" I asked when he told me I passed. "You're serious?? I passed???!" I then had him fax me the letter right away, so I could see the scores. I couldn't believe my eyes: I had scored a 146 scaled on the MBE, and a 106 on the essays -- including two perfect essay scores! Übernerd that I am, I arranged the essay topics in a chart, highest to lowest score, and included the grade I received in that class to see if there was any correlation. I present the results below:
As you can see, there was no correlation between how I did on the essays, and how I did in the law school class -- or whether I even took the class. I got perfect scores in CivPro and Worker's Comp, despite my only scraping by with a B+ on an open-book CivPro exam, and never even taking Worker's Comp. Looking back on it, I'm not surprised I scored 8s and 9s in Crim and ConLaw, considering I took several related courses dealing with those topics, and details must have seeped in over the years. But an 8 in Sales? 7 and 8 in Wills and Trusts? I never took those courses! And I never thought I'd do better in those courses than in Corporations and Contracts, courses I actually took and did okay in.
So then it is clear that BarBri works. For the uninitiated, BarBri is the bar prep course that 9 out of 10 law students sign up for. It costs over $2,000 and entails sitting in front of a videotaped lecture for three to four hours a day for about six weeks. Yes, videotape. Apparently one class in the state gets live professors, and the rest of us have to make due with their virtual counterpart. Some of the professors were energetic and hilarious, some were just very good teachers, and some were so God-awfully boring. Truth be told, my BarBri class attendance and study habits were very similar to my law school habits: I generally skipped the last hour of the videotapes ("Enough is enough!"), and I didn't even go to the last week of classes. Instead, I stayed in the library and focused on the topics I thought needed the most reviewing.
And BarBri publishes their suggested study schedule -- a certain number of questions and essays and outline reading per day -- but I never stuck to that. There were long topic outlines (sometimes 80 pages single spaced), and short outlines (less than half that length). I usually did far less homework than was suggested, did very few essay problems, and I don't think I ever read any of the long outlines.
Here's another questionable thing I did -- err, didn't do: I never actually sat down and did a full practice bar exam. I never did 200 MBE questions in one day; the most I could ever manage to do was 100 in three hours, and then I spent the rest of the day going over the answers. I even skipped the BarBri class day where we were supposed to sit there for 6 hours and take a simulated 200-question test. (I was exhausted because I hadn't gotten any sleep, and I rationalized that this diagnostic test would serve absolutely no purpose because I would do far worse than during the actual exam day, when I would be well-rested.) I knew that I should take a full practice test, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I figured I'd get more out of reading outlines and trying to understand general concepts than I would out of playing a few six-hour games of "Let's Stump Matt."
Most of my friends and family weren't concerned about my passing, and considered it more of a given than anything else. But they didn't know about my sordid BarBri experience, and so you can see why I was already planning new study strategies for the next go-around, and why I was extremely surprised that I passed on the first try. (In case you're interested, my new plan was to do 100 MBE questions a day, every day, as opposed to the 10-20 questions per day I did the first time.) I was so convinced I had failed, that it wasn't even a huge load-off when I found out I passed. Had I been banking on passing, and hoping with all my might that I passed, then hearing the results of that letter would have been SO AWESOME! But, as it was, the results were only a very pleasant surprise. Don't get me wrong; I'm very glad I passed. But my hopes weren't riding on it. Mentally, I had been very prepared to start studying again.
That said, I'm glad I don't have to! I will return to Michigan this week, and on Thursday be sworn in. Then the DC bar waiver process can commence. Next stop: Finding a job.