The Truth about what the bar exam is and is not

If you are preparing for the bar exam, the journey ahead can be more easily conquered if you understand what you are actually undertaking. I always begin my first session with a student by giving them the “truth” lecture, also known as the “see this thing for what it is and dispense with what it isn’t” lecture.

What the exam is: an extraordinary human endeavor shrouded in a common exam. It is difficult, but not for the reasons you think. The bar exam is hard because it is unknown and because you have no control over it.  

What it isn’t: The bar exam is not an intellectual pursuit, which is to say that its requirements are largely mechanical and predictable and can be easily assessed and mastered by any student that graduated from a reputable law school. This stark reality often meets with resistance from students. First because they have elevated the exam to something akin to folklore in its romantic effects on the anxiety-stricken exam taker (and the legal populace) and, second, because they want to be part of something that nobel. But I urge students to consider that there are no extra points for suffering, and suffering is largely not necessary.

Not only are the exam’s contents rather common, those charged with evaluating its subjective elements (essays) are not brilliant professors or circuit court judges. They are marginal lawyers. I say this meaning no disrespect, but rather as a means to give perspective. Brilliance is not rewarded on the exam.

The most important thing that the bar exam is not, is true. It is an unreal alternate universe. And by that I mean that measured against any philosophical test of “truth” the exam does not pass. For example, applied against a minimal test, a thing is true if it is:

1. Independent of belief

2. Immutable

3. The same for all

(See Philosophy, An Introduction through Literature, Paragon, House 1990, Page 94.)

None of these elements are met by the bar exam. It is subjective in every respect, the MBE more than the essays in my opinion because the “best” answers are those that the bar examiner says are best. We have no choice but to take the examiner’s word. Students gain facility on the MBE through exposure and not through deducing a legal truth. Though the MBE attempts to test a compromised legal element, it does so poorly and without a "provable" result. 

Essays equally are geared at testing a student’s ability to find problems more than demonstrate mastery of answers or conclusions. It’s a laudable goal, but one not often achieved. Why, because students are practicing “writing” authoritative and conclusive answers when the essays test very little of that skill. Mostly, the person scoring your essay is looking to see that you've identified issues, or "problems."

My point here is not to deliver grim news, but rather to empower students to do what the thing requires: Assess the test in a way that reduces it to how it is scored rather than attempting to achieve a legal truth or absolute answer. Save that for law practice. And on that note, think of how much your LSAT informed your law school experience. The answer to that is not at all. Nor was it predictive of your abilities in law school. Similarly, the bar exam does little to prepare you for actual lawyering. It makes sense then to compartmentalize the task and give its essence little validity.

If you know that you will not find a perfectly “right” answer to MBE’s, you are empowered to look instead for what the examiner wants you to see and then progress as a result of the shift in perspective. But be warned, progression on the MBE is cumulative and intuitive rather than linear and results come from massive exposure, rather than deductive and absolute knowledge. You won’t get better in a way that gives you comfort on the MBE. By that I mean, it’s doubtful you will arrive at a question and say “Yes, it’s “B” for sure.” Instead, you are more likely to say, “It’s not “A” or “C” and between the two that remain, I think they are going for “B.”

On essays, rather than crafting your conclusive brilliant response while reading the hypos, it gets you further to engage in the process of collecting the “problems.” That’s where the points are.

None of this talk of truth is intended to minimize the exam. It is a monumental endeavor. By the numbers in the population, it is a rare pursuit — even if you think it is ordinary in your circle. It is huge that a human is even taking this thing. For that, I am always amazed by the stories of students who struggle with adversity in law school. But for me, the awe associated with the bar exam belongs to the person taking the exam and not with the test, and that’s where I focus my guidance.

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Deborah Sanders is owner of Bar-None Prep and is based in New Jersey. She is writing a book on "The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar" and her writings can be read at www.barexammaster.com

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