Next week is the bar exam.

I remember reading that during the good old days at West Point, new cadets would be hazed by having to do a “white tornado”: an upperclassman would take all the condiments on the mess hall table—salt, sugar, pepper, tabasco, ketchup, etc.—and mix them in a bowl. Then the cadet would have to eat it. All of it.

The whole bar exam process is a white tornado. At the beginning, you stare down and wonder how you’ll be able to consume all the material. Then you start plugging away, and though progress seems slow, little by little you make your way through the pile. Toward the end, you feel disgusting and ill, but you realize that getting through it is more about willpower and persistence than intellect or talent.

Much like law school, preparing for the bar exam is not hard so much as it’s long and tedious. After nine weeks of studying, I am utterly, totally, sick of it. I’m sick of being stuck in the house, watching the beautiful summer days pass outside my window, as I hit “play” on yet another Barbri lecture (I listened to the lectures at home, an option I recommend if you’re someone who can work at home without habitually ending up watching the Game Show Network). I’m sick of eating takeout. I’m sick of having to say “I’d love to go, but I have to study for the bar exam”.

I hit the wall this past Wednesday—I just didn’t feel like I could cram one more item into my brain. So for the last few days, I’ve just been taking it easy and goofing off. Next week, as I sit in air-conditioned discomfort in the Sacramento convention center, I will remember these days fondly.

To be fair, the study process is not totally without value. I’ve learned some useful things that I bypassed in law school. I also have a better sense of how different areas of the law fit together. I can’t say whether I’ll retain anything 10 days from now, but today, I’m competent to give legal advice.

A lawyer I know who took the California bar after moving from New York said “What’s the big deal? If you study, you pass.” I think he’s pretty much right. The bar examiners make a deal with you: The bad news is that the exam covers a ridiculously broad range of topics—more than anyone could hope to retain. So if you think you have to learn all the material to pass, you’re nuts. Because you can’t, and you’ll go crazy trying.

The good news is that they write the exam so it hits the same topics over and over, the same way. So studying the law is important, but studying the past exams is what helps you narrow your focus to a feasible territory.

On that point, I must give credit to the Barbri lecturers, who do a good job separating out the “must know” material from the “learn it if you can” material. The first amendment? Must know. The federal postal monopoly? Only if you have time.

I can’t imagine anyone ever feels totally prepared for the bar. The best you can do is feel prepared enough. And that’s fine, because as a pass / fail exam, there’s no profit in overpreparation. Many of the bar takers I know, including myself, are lifelong academic overachievers (i.e. dorks) so it’s required a bit of adjustment to turn off the part of our brains that wants to get an ‘A’. Because there is no ‘A’ to get.

(Though I hear that if you do really well on the California bar exam, they solicit you to be an essay grader—if I find out that anyone I know accepts that offer, I will drive to their house and give them a massive wedgie.)

The last straw for me was a few days ago, when I emailed a friend to ask a question about free speech regulation. He told me he had had the exact same question, and had emailed Erwin Chemerinsky, who is a national constutitional law scholar and handles the Barbri con law lecture. Chemerinsky implied that it had no answer.

At that point, I knew it was time to put down my pencil and go outside.

Best of luck to everyone taking the exam next week.

JULY 26 UPDATE: Bar exam complete. Pretty much exactly what I expected. I think we can say that what’s true of law school is also true of the bar exam: if you can get past the whining and griping, it’s not that big a deal. The two months of bar exam preparation is far worse than the exam itself, that’s for sure. Now if you’ll excuse me ... I have to start the goofing-off part of my summer in earnest.

21 Jul 07

matthewb @ ucla
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