How I would have done law school and bar prep differently

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By Makenzie Way, a former BARBRI student and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. She currently serves as a labor and employment associate with WilmerHale in Boston.

Even as early as 2L year, my bar prep strategy was to take all bar exam related subjects sooner rather than later in law school. I even had the lofty goal of beginning my bar exam study during 2L summer. That plan quickly changed my second semester of 1L year, when I had to choose my electives. One of which was Real Property, an MBE (Multistate Bar Exam) subject tested on the bar exam. 

After becoming quite aware of the tough grading curve, I made the choice to enroll in a somewhat easier subject that I found to be of greater personal interest. After all, 1L grades are considered the most important in law school when it comes to opening career doors and securing employment. No reason to struggle unnecessarily, right?

Lesson learned: Strike better balance

In hindsight, I should have planned a more even balance of enrolling in field-specific upper level elective courses and bar exam related courses. Instead, I focused on field-specific courses that would lay the foundation for my dream job in labor and employment. I had never studied for the bar exam, so what did I know?

Well, my take on the matter now is: You need to find a balance.

Balancing Stones

What balance, you might ask?

First, I do think it’s important to take career-specific courses and skill-building classes, rather than all doctrinal courses. This is especially important in the semesters leading up to your 2L summer job. It helps to really “wow” your employer with your grasp on an area of law, especially if you want to secure a job in that area.

That said, your employer understands that you’re a law student who will have to sit for the bar exam. They want you to pass. They do not expect you to already be an expert in the field of law you’re entering. That’s why you work under a supervising attorney. So, yes, you should take some career-specific courses and some skill-building courses … just don’t overdo it

During the latter part of 1L year is a good time to start doing research on the big areas of law covered on the bar exam, especially the ones that show up both on the MBE and MEE (Multistate Essay Exam). Try to figure out which ones you’ll struggle with and take those courses while in law school. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the bar exam.

During 1L year, your MBE subjects will be covered with the exception of Criminal Procedure and Evidence. If you haven’t already, I recommend taking all of the MBE courses. Other good subjects to consider taking are Secured Transactions and Business Associations (if you have limited business experience and understanding). But again, this is specific to each person so do what feels right for your long-term strategy and goals. 

sparkling brain

Keep 1L material fresh in your mind

I treated the end of 1L year like the end of a marathon that I never wanted to look back on. I promptly returned and sold my textbooks, threw out my notes and, unless necessary for work, social discussion or other classes, never gave a second thought to the 1L course material I studied.

Sure, I could still recite the basic outlines of each first-year subject. I could still recite, with pleasure, the big cases … but I let a lot of the intricate workings of the law that I had spent months learning slip out of my memory bank.

The fact that I allowed this to happen is frustrating because I had to waste precious time relearning those concepts during my bar prep. A better strategy would have been to skim my notes on a monthly basis to ensure I was retaining important concepts.

Hold onto early notes and flashcards

I spent hours creating stacks of flashcards for pretty much all of the MBE subjects. Yet, in my haste to be done with 1L year, I just threw them away. In my mind, I had passed the final exam and there was no more value left in them. 

Then, I realized I needed to pass the most important exam of all and had to spend precious time making flashcards on things that I once had already created. 

Likewise, when I hit particularly complex issues in the law, I wished I could have turned back to my own class notes. While a long outline is a fantastic resource, your own notes explaining the law after finally figuring it out from your professor are (for the most part) easier to comprehend because they are a product of your own brain. 

Dive into the U.S. Constitution

As an international student, the U.S. Constitution was mind-boggling to me. The bar exam lecturers constantly say “use your common sense” when it comes to Constitutional Law, but that never really worked for me. I still look at Con Law concepts through the lens of a Canadian who is very well versed in the inner workings of the Canadian Constitution. 

I was always in awe of those classmates and colleagues who had an in-depth understanding of the U.S. Constitution. I would listen to them apply it to recent scenarios or read their Law Review articles and be fascinated. I personally never really took the time to learn much beyond what I needed to know to pass my courses. Looking back, I’m not sure why I took this view since it was always my intention to work and live in the United States.

For most international students, Constitutional Law is one of the hardest bar exam subjects to study and understand — I’ve asked around. Even if you’re not an international student, Con Law can be hard. I mean, there’s literally a rule for every facet of social and governmental functioning that you could possibly imagine, not to mention all the exceptions to the rules. Considering the inherent complexities of Constitutional Law, I think it is wise to spend a decent chunk of your law school career learning to spot and interpret Constitutional issues and apply the various laws. 

Having said all that, if you happen to be in your 3L year and no longer have your 1L flashcards or comprehension of Con Law, or literally only enrolled in the 1L required bar courses, don’t freak out. Having done pretty much all of the things I now know I shouldn’t have during my time in law school, I still know it’s possible to pass the bar exam. I am confident you will too.

Best of luck with your future bar prep. Get some expert bar exam study tips.

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