How LL.M.s can avoid five common bar exam studying missteps

It is the time of the year when LL.M. students hide in the library, ponder their outlines, and read the last cases of the semester. The final days of the LL.M. program are here, accumulating in anxiety over the final exams.

But once this peak is mastered, time for celebration is short. The bar exam looms on the horizon.

This is an excellent opportunity, as adding a U.S. bar admission to your LL.M. degree is a wonderful accomplishment.

You may have already chosen a bar prep course to help you through the coming weeks, but at the end of the day, there is only one surefire way to succeed. That is to study.

Here are five study mistakes to avoid:

Practicing Timing Too Late

The most common complaint I hear from LL.M. bar exam takers is that they did not have enough time to finish the exam. That’s not the exam’s fault — it’s a defect in our study habits. We know, right here and now, exactly how much time we will have to complete each section of the exam, down to the very minute. Time is not a feature of the exam that will only be revealed on the exam day. The amount of time available is no surprise but a critical component to passing the exam.

If LL.M. exam takers have a disadvantage in the bar exam, it is that they need more time comprehending or articulating English. This doesn’t mean that we cannot finish the exam in the allocated time, it only means we should practice timing more. From day one of our study, we should practice essay writing and multiple choice questions with a timer. No open books, no extensions of time, nothing but real exam circumstances. The timing of the exam must become second nature, something so innate that it does not require energy during the exam.

If we find ourselves in the dilemma of having to chase the clock during the exam, we are in a very difficult situation. I understand that practicing in “real exam time” is especially frustrating in the first days or weeks of our study. We have not covered enough material yet to practice in test mode. But what we are doing is not testing our knowledge, but practicing and internalizing our timing.

  1. Changing Methods

Once bar prep begins, we must focus on studying. There’s no time to figure out how to study. I have heard of many who changed their study method half way through, from outline to flashcards or vice versa, and subsequently got off track. Choose the method that you know works best for you and stick to it. We do not have the time for experimentation since preparation time is short.

Changing Gears

Bar preparation is short, but it is very long. By being both it makes for a psycho thriller. Time is too short to cover all material and too long to be doing this madness for the weeks to come. We make one of two mistakes: we either start too slow, studying only a few hours a day at first, and then panic in 12 hour days towards the end. Or we start like a maniac in the first weeks only to burnout halfway through. We must find the sweet spot, the rhythm that we can comfortably sustain over the entire period of preparation. What the board of law examiners is testing is our reserve and persistence. 

Wasting Energy

If you have chosen to study with a bar preparation course, listen to what the instructors tell you. Once you have decided on a course, it makes no sense for you to challenge their method. This does not mean blind allegiance but avoiding spending energy on things that cannot be changed at this moment. If you feel like you are in trouble, speak to the bar course representatives and get things resolved quickly. We have to get our act together, sit down and do the work.

Not Understanding What Skills are Tested

The bar exam does not have different components to keep it stimulating, but rather to test different sets of skills. Writing an essay in IRAC requires different skills than answering 200 multiple-choice questions in six hours. If they covered the rule of perpetuity in the essay, why are they asking about this in the multiple-choice part again? The law is the same, so if we can answer one, won’t we be able to answer the other? Not so. The way we derive a conclusion and express it is very different in an essay than it is in a multiple-choice question. Just because we understood the rule of perpetuity does not mean will get that multiple-choice question right or write a perfect essay. We must understand each part of the exam, its purpose, logic and goal. 


Desiree Jaeger-Fine is principal of the Jaeger-Fine Group, a career management firm for international attorneys in New York, and author of "A Short & Happy Guide to Networking" (West Academic Publishing).