The following post was originally written for the BetterNoahLawyer.com by Noah Weil.
As I’ve written about before I enjoy talking to prospective law students and the general public about law school and lawyering. Some people like to hear about studying and grades and police and courtrooms. What I don’t get asked about too often is the bridge between law school and a license to practice: the bar exam.
I’m sure the potential law students don’t ask about it because to them the decision is whether to go to law school in the first place. They assume, perhaps rightly, that if they’re good enough or motivated enough to attend law school, one final exam won’t tip the scales.
And the people who want to know about the practice of law don’t really care how you got there. “What’s it like visiting prison or being in trial?” they might inquire. No one has ever asked about my grades or my professors’ names. I imagine asking about the bar is in same rubric of “interesting but irrelevant.”
But there are a few reasons why a post on the bar exam is worth sharing. First of all, it’s an experience really unlike any other. It’s so unique, it’s interesting for that alone. Secondly it is highly relevant for the people who do want to become attorneys, the last hurdle they’ll need to overcome. There’s a historical component, which I’ll get to later. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s good to know that whatever lawyer you work with, for any issue, you know they have the chops to conquer one of the more grueling tests out there.
Law School Exams
What I didn’t realize until much later was that the bar exam is really an enhanced, or twisted, version of a law school exam. I’ll explain.
Most law school classes, especially in the first year, have a clear-cut grading process: for each course, the final test determines the final grade. This means no graded assignments, no participation bonuses, no final project.
At the end of a semester the professor reminds the class of the existence of a final exam and by the way it’s coming up soon. This is kind of pointless because if you haven’t gotten the material yet, two weeks is an awfully short time to master a subject. And in any event, the people that were paying attention were very aware the semester was ending and an exam was looming.
Semesters end on a Thursday. Starting the next Monday, and for the 13 days after, we would be in finals-land. Every 2-3 days, we would have a final exam in a subject. In law school, those two weeks really suck.
The “trick” for studying for a law school exam was to pour yourself into a subject, master it, ace the exam, then completely forget the material and transition to the next test 48 hours hence. You get the hang of it but it’s not easy and never fun. Around exam time, especially for the first year students, the tension is remarkably thick. Needless to say, I managed to scrape by for the three years.
Graduating from law school was great. My parents flew out, I graduated with honors, we had a party. They gave me a fancy piece of paper (now framed in my office), etc.
Unfortunately, and again I emphasize this for my prospective lawyer friends, graduating from law school does not really do anything. In fact, telling someone you’re a juris doctor emphasizes the fact that you have a degree but are not a lawyer. What a law degree gives you is the ability to write “J.D.” after your signature (whee!) and admission to take the test to become an actual, licensed attorney. So graduating from school was great, and then there’s a lot of studying. If I remember correctly, the bar review course began 11 days after graduation.
Studying for the bar
What prompted me to write this little essay was that Washington is changing their bar exam. That means all the information I’m about to describe is now useless. Oh well.
Washington (used to) have a very odd bar exam compared to the rest of the country. In almost every other state, the exam included a “multistate” portion of universal-ish law, and some essay questions, and maybe a kind of practical issue, like writing a motion. Some states had ethics portions before the exam, some during, and some after.
Washington eschewed the Multistate portion and the practice portion. Instead it’s three days of essay testing. Two solid days of exclusive Washington law questions, followed by a half day of Washington ethics questions. If you failed one portion but not the other you only had to take the failed part again. But both the substantive and ethics portions needed to be passed in order to get a license to practice law. Did I mention that the bar exam is only offered twice a year? Yes, testing only occurs in February and August. Failing either or both halves meant you wouldn’t get another crack at it for six months.
The substantive essays broke down as follows: three blocks per day, each block lasting 2.25 hours, each consisting of three essay questions. Broken down further that means each essay is an average of 45 minutes per. And you’d do 18 of these over the course of the first two days.
It turned out from bar review that these essays were much, much different than the law school exam.
Law school tests are all about splitting the middle. Those exams are complex questions going deep into a subject, where the “right” answer was impossible to find, and probably irrelevant besides. A student’s job was to note branching lines of exploration and analyze each decision tree to its logical conclusion. Get enough “analysis” points and do well, simple as that. Whether the plaintiff won or lost was completely irrelevant to the final score, it was simply about showing how you got there. Law school exams were 3-4 hours long, often consisting of a single question.
The bar is composed of much simpler questions, with correspondingly less text to analyze and less room to do it in. Each test taker has that 45 minutes and 4,369 characters to answer a single essay question. With such little time and space, you do not have time to delve deep into veins of insight. In other words, you are tested on awareness of issues rather than analysis; breadth over depth. Your goal is to spot the issues, not explore them to death.
Studying for the bar consisted of attending bar review class (about three hours a day), outlining notes, discussing subjects, and doing practice questions. I say with no hyperbole that I studied for the exam every single day, 7 days a week.
I really wanted to hit the ground running, so I just went full out the first week. Class and study from sunrise to way past sundown. What happened? I got sick. I came down with a nasty cold around day 4, which ended up creating some sub-productive days afterward. I don’t know if the cold was a coincidence or just my bodily response to diving into the material, but the end result was that I took it a little easier on myself when I recovered. Some days were those sunup to sundown, and some were only four hours or whatever.
There is no universal advice for how much to study per se, except that sources agree you should not be doing anything else (e.g. working, planning a wedding, giving birth, enjoying life). Those same sources always included a bit about “spending the time to stay healthy” (e.g. exercise, social time), but that always struck me as the ubiquitous “Most importantly: HAVE FUN!!!” instructions one would see, on say, a colonoscopy checklist. Half meaningless, and regardless, easier said than done.
My study material was my conjoined twin. I would read while joining people for dinner, while donating blood, and during other periods of reflection (pooping). The goal was always to understanding the material enough to recognize the issue in a narrative, and parrot back the talking points.
Originally this was where I would get tripped up. I was excellent at understanding the material, solid on recognizing issues, but poor at verbatim regurgitation. My style of learning was to fit the material to my consciousness, not the other way around. What do I mean by this?
Understand that the bar is taken by between 400 and 600 applicants each offering. Every exam is graded by a human being, usually the same human being. This person does not have the mental stamina to properly grade an infinite variety of style and prose. They have a heuristic in their head on how an answer “should” look. That means a certain recitation of “buzz words,” and language were the bread-and-butter of exam answers, the point-getters.
And as I said these de facto lines were not always at the tip of my tongue. Frankly it was my error; I was genuinely focused on learning rather than rote repetition. Much, much later I realized I would have to write the key lines over and over again for a subject so that my fingers would get the memory of it. It worked pretty well.
There are a lot of problems with this test, not the least of which the preceding paragraph says: knowledge is less important than memorization. But the real problem of the test is how corrosive it is to your psyche. I’ll share my experience, but from talks with other test-takers, mine was hardly unique.
For law school exams the pressure was there, but you were just moving too fast over a short amount of time to truly suffer. Well, some people suffered. But for me there was no time to dwell. For the bar, the long-term aspects of the test are monstrous. I pride myself on someone who does his best to take things in a laid-back manner. Sometimes I fail at this, but I do my best. My clients have commented my even-keeled demeanor helps when they’re stressed. Regardless the bar shredded my sense of self-serenity.
I found myself irritated at the slightest things, then being irritated I was irritated.. Other test takes got together regularly to complain, but not so long to interrupt study time. It was a vicious cycle, and it only got worse as the weeks went on. Words don’t do it justice.
I was studying for the July test and so I started in May. Suddenly, at the end of June, the test was a mere few weeks away. I went into utter crash mode, taking crazy nights and trying to get in as many practice questions as possible. I listed every subject on paper, hung them up, then put colored hash marks based on my self-grading of the question after. Too many red marks meant hitting the subject hard. The scores were my own call of course; I had no real clue how an actual grader would take the essay. I merely had the question and a sample answer, and had to go from there. Paper and marker were scattered everywhere, like a kid trying to recreate the realization scene from a Beautiful Mind (a frazzled mind?). All this to say studying for the thing made us a little crazy.
One other ridiculous aspect was the monetary investment required. People actually took out loans in order to take the exam. They are called “Bar Loans.” X weeks of not working is certainly a finance drainer, but there are other costs as well. The fee for merely sitting for the exam is over $500, plus another $120 if you want the privilege of taking the exam on your computer (I did). Common practice has the test taker check into a hotel through the length of the exam, so there’s a chunk right there. And, I don’t know, you have to drink a lot on either outcome, so there’s a bill as well.
Now I don’t want to say the process was all bad. At the peak, we knew more varied Washington law than I ever had before and probably ever will again. How much law? We knew how to legally get married, get divorced, get custody, get palimony, all while simultaneously forming an LLC, partnership, and corporation, funding them with the profits from suits from all the negligence and slander you can assume was suffered daily, all while defending one’s self from indecent liberties charges, of course at the same as originating a securitized loan, entering into a contract to sell some goods, buy a house, sell the other house, sue the state, not sue an Indian tribe, establish a trust, and execute a valid will. And do so by correctly writing a check.
And, then, it was the night before. Everyone agreed you were incapable of learning the day before the test; advice I completely ignored as I cracked the books for a bit longer. But I did have the foresight to know I would need to take my mind off the tomorrow’s festivities, so I brought along a non-law book to help me relax.
It was the Daily Show: America book. Hilarious book. A book where all they talk about is systems of laws and governments. Terrible choice. After reading something about the Magna Carta being the origin of the escheat principle I gave up in disgust. I spent the next 10 minutes telling myself not to cite to the Magna Carta on the exam, and the next 120 minutes trying to sleep. It didn’t work. The Magna Carta part worked, the sleeping not so much. Oh well.
I woke up at about 5 and to hit the gym to wake my blood up. Registration (at 6:30! in the morning!) was uneventful. Thankfully there was no problem with the cardboard.
Oh yes the cardboard. Well that computer fee I mentioned above allowed me to license exam software to take the test on a computer. This software disabled your computer’s higher functions, allowing you to securely use a word processing program to write and securely transmit your answers. Aside from, say, language settings and the like, the software narrowed your computer’s capabilities significantly. It was a neat little application.
Except it didn’t quite work right for my machine. It reset the computer into “exam mode” easily enough, but it didn’t quite maintain the correct settings. Like most laptops, mine had a touchpad. Like most, mine came with “double tap,” which allows you to tap the touchpad twice as a functional left click. I hate this feature, because I am always clicking inadvertently because I’m a spaz. This disabling was not carried over to the exam mode. In fact it worsened. Instead of double tap being restored, single tap was turned on.
This is worse than it sounds. The cursor would fly all over the place making me insert sentences into already-written, tight paragraphs. It also had the fatal effect of highlighting a section while I was typing, meaning I could instantly replace huge swaths of text with “t.”
This was a serious problem. Handwriting was never an option; my handwriting is best described as an epileptic horse scribbling during an earthquake. So what to do?
The tech support was no help. They suggested I alternatively tinker with the BIOS until I found the one that disabled the touchpad entirely, or find a rodent to Ratatouille-style manipulate my hands during the exam. Both sounded risky and time-consuming.
The solution was low-tech: a small piece of cardboard on top of the touchpad blocked it entirely. Plug in a mouse, and voila, I was set. I only had to get the approval of the WSBA to bring the blank, 3” by 3” piece of cardboard into the exam room. This required me to forward mine and tech support’s entire email conversation to the WSBA, which revealed the long rant where I tell the tech people how many different circles of hell they qualified to enter upon what I hoped was their violent, imminent death (I didn’t know the right answer because they refused to tell me if they were baptized). Did I mention during this process I was irritable? The WSBA did accede though, and I was permitted to bring those few inches’ worth of cardboard into the room. I also got seated at Table 1, which seemed like a good omen.
I set up and spent a few minutes chatting with the test-taker next to me. She seemed nice. I forget her name instantly, although I’ve since run into her. Her name is Mindy. She’s a prosecutor. She passed.
We were given lots of serious instructions about STOPPING when told to STOP and if you need to VOMIT please do not VOMIT in the TESTING AREA and also do not CHEAT. Who in the hell would risk cheats after this much investment? I mean, I guess if you hadn’t studied you could go for it, but would they even let you take the test again if they kick you out for cheating? There’s pressure but c’mon, think about it.
The proctors hand out the paperwork (“DO NOT TURN THEM OVER UNTIL TOLD TO BEGIN”) and then, just like that, we were told to begin.
As I said, you get three questions per set. Sources disagree on how to tackle them. Some suggested looking over all three, doing the easiest one first, then using that confidence to push through the hardest, then ending with the middle. I think that’s ridiculous. All the questions need to be answered, so who cares about the order? All you’re doing is wasting precious time looking at three questions at once, making some weird evaluations, and probably just creating confusion or dread about what’s actually going on.
Besides all that, the software is set up so that you write your answer on each computer “page,” clicking a right arrow to move on to the next question’s answer. The computer prevents you from typing when you’ve reached the character limit, hence moving to the next page was necessary. We were told that people had outright failed the bar by putting Essay 1 on Answer 2’s page, etc. This seemed like the worst outcome imaginable, and I was not having any of it. I took them in numerical order, every single time. I actually spent a minute at the end of each set making sure things were in the right place, although looking back at it, if I did screw up the order there would be nothing I could do about it.
The first set wasn’t so bad. The questions were similar to the practice stuff; no weird surprises. It felt like riding a bike. 2.25 hours later, we finished and I got up feeling ok with the process. We had a 30 minute break, and the people I spoke with seemed in good spirits too. 1/6 of the hard stuff down.
Incidentally, do not talk about the answers to the questions. What in the world good does it do you? Make you feel good that you answered like someone else did? You’re just setting someone, probably you, up for misery. There was a family law question in the second set that involved a co-habitating couple, i.e. they were living together but not married. They split up, who gets the stuff, blah blah. The fact they were unmarried was kind of subtle, it was more the absence of them being married than anything overt. I was happy to catch it, and I’m sure not everyone did. Am I going to go up to people and start talking about the unusual cohabitation question? Lord no, that’s just the beginning of an arms race. I ate a banana.
Things started to turn a little unusual in Set 2. Besides the family law question, there was a property question which I believe was the overall most difficult of the entire exam. There were other questions that had elements I was soft on, but this was the one I felt outright ignorant on. The wails of anguish around me implied everyone else seemed to feel the same.
I did have one incident here. I was typing away on my computer when the screen froze. I banged on the keys for a minute but nothing showed up on the screen. There was a beat and then all the characters appeared. And then the computer crashed.
Luckily the program has a built in auto-save feature and it did throw me back to where I was in the process, with only a minute or two’s worth of work lost. And who knows, maybe the second iteration was better. But watching the computer reset itself was something else.
We had an hour for lunch, and then the final set. Weirder and weirder questions were being thrown at us here, I remember one where a guy took out a bunch of securitized loans, then shipped some computers or whatever. Since we’re given copies of past exam questions I know in earlier years these would be their own essay, but here they were combined in one. I answered as best I could, but at the end of Day 1 I had no real sense of my scoring.
The end of Day 1 is interesting. The test generally has subjects it can test on, subjects it will test on, and subjects it will test on a lot. There is never an exact pattern, but for some subjects you can be sure if it wasn’t asked on Day 1, it will be on Day 2,. That means you can focus your studying on what you know will come, and ignore the rest. That’s valuable, but there are a couple problems.
Studying? Everyone was utterly exhausted after the intensity of the day, and I knew sleep would still be tough to get. The idea of doing more practice essays, even a curtailed version, made me cringe.
But I couldn’t let the opportunity to study the exact subjects tested on go, so I split the difference. I did some very cursory reading and only wrote on the paper, ignoring the computer completely. I also did not stay up late. I did get to sleep easier.
Day 2 was troubling. The questions were getting much harder and weirder, and whether it was exhaustion or difficulty, I was definitely feeling the strain.
This seems like a good point to jump in with, is the Washington Bar Exam difficult? Yes. How does it compare to other states? I don’t have a specific answer because it’s the only state’s exam I’ve taken. But the most recent test had a 64.7% pass rate (I don’t recall my year’s exact figures but it was mid-sixties). This article says Washington has the third-hardest bar exam on the country. Does that mean we have the third-smartest attorneys in the country?
The very worst point for me was on the very final set, on the second to last question. They hadn’t asked a constitutional law question yet, which was a guaranteed subject to test. The second to last question looked like a con law question, but further scrutiny showed it was actually an employment law question! This was a little insane, since employment law has never been tested on the Washington bar. I utterly, utterly guessed on this one. The employment portion was only a third of that question and the other parts felt better, but c’mon. Despite admonitions to be QUIET and not CURSE UNDER YOUR BREATH I heard a lot of angry mutters behind me when people hit that one.
The last question was the con law/administrative law one, not my best, but we were finished. The substantive law section of the bar exam was over. Time to drink a beer, collapse, and sleep for 14 hours.
Ha just kidding because the ethics portion was the next day. It was a short day, only one set instead of three, but I was sad I didn’t get to drinky sleepy. The subject matter was crystal clear. We would be tested on the Rules of Professional Conduct, done. Help yourself if you want to play along.
Again I was supposed to study and again I just did not have it in me. I was feeling relatively confident about this subject though. My graded essays came back positive, and the ethics course I took at school was taught very well by a sitting judge. And that professor tried to mimic the bar exam, what with time and character pressure, so I was certainly familiar with the conditions.
The final day started much the same. Eat, get to the seat, etc. The final set had, yet again, weird questions. We did our best, and while a little odd, the questions were manageable. I felt ok about it, at least compared to the 18 questions over the previous days, to which I had absolutely no clue. And then time was called, and everyone else cheered, and we shuffled out. Seattle University (go Hawks!) people were there to congratulate us, which was a nice touch.
I went back to my room, collected my things, and drove home. I stopped at Trophy Cupcakes for a reward-cake. The woman behind the counter said I looked gaunt. I told her what I had done the last three days, and she gave me one on the house. Nice people. Good cupcakes.
Having possibly never been as tired in my life as I was then, I collapsed in bed.
After the Test
One funny thing about the bar, and really there’s so many things that are funny about it, is the waiting. The first week after the exam you think about it. Then you stop because, what good does it do? Since there’s so many applicants, and again it must be graded by hand, it takes a while. For the test in July we weren’t to expect results until the second week of October. You try to spend the rest of the summer doing other things while your life is essentially on hold.
At the end of September we got a letter saying the exact date the results would be in, and then you remember, oh yeah, the bar.
I don’t know if this is still true but back then you wanted to get a thick letter in the mail. Thick meant congratulations and a bunch of info on licensing. Thin meant “too bad” and “here’s when your fee for the next bar exam is due.” Stinger.
On the day the letter was supposed to arrive I was far too nervous to stay still. My wife and I walked around. I checked the mailbox, a lot. I was vibrating with anticipation and finally, finally, the mailman arrived. My wife went to another room before I opened the mailbox.
The envelope was thick. I jumped up and down, very hard. I tore it open and the first word on the first page was “CONGRATULATIONS!” I let out a whoop, there was some celebrating, and later I opened a law office, continued to write the world’s best legal blog, etc.
Washington is moving to the Uniform Bar Exam next testing period, bringing it in line with most of the rest of the states. I don’t know exactly how the new exam will look but I expect it will still be some degree of stressful.
The bar is not what would I would call the healthiest experience someone can endure but it is a test of character and discipline. The citizens of Washington know if they need a lawyer for criminal defense, traffic tickets, or whatever, their attorney has gone through the flames to be qualified to represent them. To be sure, the citizens of this state deserve nothing less.