Bar prep and how I would have done law school differently

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[ Makenzie Way, 2020 Law Graduate at the University of Pennsylvania ]

As part of prematriculation, even as early as 2L year, my “very early” bar prep strategy was to take all bar exam related subjects. I even had the lofty goal of beginning my bar study during 2L summer … oh, how naive was I.

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 subjected tested on the bar exam. After becoming quite aware of the tough grading curve, I made the smart (I say humbly) choice to enroll in a somewhat easier subject that I found 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.

Lesson learned: Striking better balance

I would have planned a more even balance of enrolling in field-specific upper level elective courses and bar exam related courses.

My subsequent strategy involved focusing on field-specific courses that would lay the foundation for my dream job in labor and employment. This is something I regret, actually. This statement stands in direct contradiction to what I just explained previously – but alas, I had never studied for the bar exam before.

My take on the matter now, as someone who is in the midst of this crazy thing that we call bar prep, can be summarized neatly in this way: You need to find a balance.

But what balance? And how?

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 of law. 

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 in no way expect you to be an expert on the area 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 … but don’t overdo it … 

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

Click here for everything you need to know about the bar exam on the BARBRI website.

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. 

Keep 1L material fresher 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/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 to you. 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 banks.

The fact that I allowed this to happen – when retaining a good grasp on those concepts would have been as easy as skimming my notes on a monthly basis – is frustrating now that I’m having to waste precious time relearning those concepts during my bar prep. 

Hold onto 1L 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. Now, I need to pass the most important exam of all and really wish I didn’t have to waste so much time making flashcards on things that I once had already created. 

Likewise, when I hit particularly complex issues in the law, I wish I could turn back to my own class notes. While a long outline is a fantastic resource, your own notes explaining the law to yourself after finally figuring it out from your professor are, for the most part, easier to comprehend (since they were written with your specific brain in mind). 

Dive into the U.S. Constitution

As an international student, the U.S. Constitution is mind-boggling to me. The bar exam lecturers constantly say “use your common sense” when it comes to Constitutional Law … but that really doesn’t work for me. I still look at Con Law questions 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 current 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 since it was always the 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, I still think Con Law is 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. 

Taking the inherent complexities of Constitutional Law in mind, I think you’d be 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 (and props to you if you’ve read this far), 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 that, I still think it’s more than possible to pass the bar exam. It would just make my life easier, and give me some more free time, had I taken these measures. 

For all you lucky 1L and 2L students out there, take note of my advice here and you’ll thank yourself when the time comes to prep for the bar exam. 

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