How much time is needed to study for the bar exam?

Unfortunate situations happen to everyone, and sometimes failing a bar exam is one of those events. However, having to repeat the bar exam is an obstacle that can be overcome with the help of a one-on-one bar exam tutor. 

Emerson Stafford of Emerson’s Bar Review, in San Francisco, Calif., has been assisting repeaters to pass the California bar exam for 34 years. Stafford has an undergraduate degree in mathematics, and served in the US Air Force prior to earning his law degree and passing the California bar exam on his first attempt.

Q:  What prompted you to become a bar exam tutor?

Emerson Stafford:  When I opened my law office as a solo practitioner, the lessor of my office space had taken the bar exam seven times and not passed. Just for fun, I tutored her after hours, and she passed on the 8th try. I then tutored two more students, at no charge, and they both passed. I gradually closed my law office and shifted to tutoring full-time, for pay. I wanted to address students who had taken the bar exam multiple times and not passed. Some of these students had taken the bar exam eight to 14 times. All of them passed after I tutored them.

Q:  What do you say to a repeater who loses hope of ever passing the bar exam?

Emerson Stafford:  The primary reason people do not pass the California bar exam is inadequate knowledge of the law. Writing skills are important, and will make the difference in close cases. But most cases are not so close that the quality of writing would make the difference. Also, the multiple choice part of the exam is a good measure of legal knowledge, and does not require writing. Many students who take the exam do not do enough to address their legal knowledge. When the results are announced, if these students do not pass, they take the bar exam again within tow to three months and many students study part-time because they are working. If you have 60 days to review 14 subjects, that is an average of 4 days per subject. This is simply not enough time to affect a student’s level of knowledge. The repeaters I work with can and do pass the exam when they substantially increase their legal knowledge. Their confidence also increases significantly as they learn the law better. 

Q:  What tips can you give for someone who is not able to spot the right issues on an essay question?

Emerson Stafford: Spotting issues is clearly a function of knowledge of law. Practice in using the rules of law to analyze facts is important. But knowledge trumps everything.

Q:  How much time is needed to prepare for the bar exam?

Emerson Stafford: For the California bar exam, it takes about 400 to 600 hours. A thorough review of the substantive law requires about 1500 pages of reading, whether you read capsule outlines from Gilbert Law Summaries or Emanuel Law Outlines, or outlines from bar review courses. This material can be read at about five pages per hour. This means about 300 hours of reading. The MBE part requires that you answer about 1500 practice questions. The average time per question is five minutes, including time to study your mistakes. This requires around 125 hours. Practice essay questions, listening to lectures, and writing performance tests require about another 175 hours. This totals to 400 to 600 hours.

Q:  What tips can you give for preparing for a performance test?

Emerson Stafford:  Here is a mental exercise that is very helpful in learning to do performance exams: Without writing anything or making any notes, with no pen in the room, you should read a performance test and mentally decide how you would accomplish the task in real life. You should decide what arguments you would make, how you would use the statutes and the cases to support your position. If you do this about three times you will discover that you can compose your analysis in about 1.5 hours. Repeat the above process three times but make an outline of your answer. Then begin to write complete answers. The problem with performance tests is not writing out the analysis, although this is important, but understanding what to do. 

Q:  What do you do when not tutoring?

Emerson Stafford:  I started making tree diagrams of the law. Lots of people find this visual aid helpful. I also found that older people remember the law easier through understanding rather than memorization. It is easier to explain the law using tree diagrams than with paragraphs. 

Q:  What are the top things a student should ask when seeking a tutor? 

Emerson Stafford:  In seeking a tutor, the main things to consider are:

• Years of experience tutoring:  Understanding the policies behind tested rules makes the rules easier to remember, and experience is a fairly good measure of this. A tutor needs to be able to explain the law, not just grade papers.
• Whether a tutor uses his/her own outlines: Usually, students need in-depth knowledge of the law, and it can be a problem with a tutor who uses his/her own outlines. These outlines are usually fairly thin in content and almost always inadequate for someone who has not passed, though they may organize the gross features of a subject in a helpful way. 

Q:  What is special about the tutoring at Emerson’s Bar Review?

Emerson Stafford:  The tutoring is done at my home. At the beginning, I conducted lectures on the tested subjects in the evenings, and opened my home during the day to students to provide them a place to study, and to answer their questions on the spot. This made their learning more efficient. Later, when I had a disabled student who could not travel to my home, I videotaped my lectures to accommodate students who could not attend my classes in person. Today, students have access to my lectures 24/7, and most of the tutoring involves answering student questions, law, giving practice exams and simulated exams, and reviewing these exams with students through comments on their papers and one-on-one meetings.

Q:  Having been a tutor for 34 years, what is it about the bar exam that still interests you?

Emerson Stafford:  The variety of people remains interesting. It is still rewarding to see people succeed.