Countdown To The Bar Exam: What Your Loved Ones Need To Know

A Cautionary Tale for the Friends and Relatives of Law School Graduates

“Shut up, people! Just shut up!” I wanted to scream. “You’re not an attorney, you’ve never been to law school, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

That was me in July 2013, two months after I’d graduated from law school but light years away – or so it seemed – from becoming a licensed attorney.

I was turning into a real head case. The date of the bar exam was rapidly approaching, and I could tell that I wasn’t ready. Granted, no one with any sense ever feels ready to take the bar. But I made the mistake of posting thoughts of my pending doom on Facebook, a case of over-sharing on the Internet.

“Three more weeks to go, and then I will fail the bar exam,” I wrote. “Fail, fail, fail. I just know it.”

A chorus of responses followed. “You’ll be fine!” “You’re gonna do great!” “I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors!”

I know my friends were trying to be helpful, but I wanted to smack them. They weren’t lawyers and had no first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to study for the bar. As a stressed-out lawyer wannabe, I quickly tired of their hippie-dippy, “you-can-do-it” cheerleading so far removed from reality.

It wasn’t their fault, of course. They just didn’t understand. So as a public service to friends and relatives of graduating law students, let me break it down. Here’s why the prospect of taking the bar exam can leave many of us moody, short-tempered, and riddled with anxiety:

The bar exam is a head game like no other. It makes the LSAT – the test to get into law school – seem like child’s play. While the structure of the bar exam varies somewhat by jurisdiction, all states require at least two full days of testing, and a few states tack on an additional third day. Success on the exam, even for the best students, is hardly a given.

Most graduates, just days after reaching the dream of receiving their law degree, will begin an exhaustive bar review course to get ready for the nightmare. That’s what I did, taking online classes five days a week while working on weekends. The experience is so intense that most law schools recommend not working at all in the two-and-a-half months between graduation and the bar exam. Prepping for it requires that kind of focus.

Just consider this passage from my study materials on wills and trusts for the New York State bar:  New York law does not recognize the doctrine of incorporation by reference but sometimes stretches the doctrine of republication by codicil to permit a duly executed but otherwise invalid will to be given legal effect.  Did you get all that?

Compounding the problem, I was not one of those law students who tested well. I tended to perform better in courses like Trial Advocacy or Legal Writing, where the final grade is based on trying a mock case, drafting motions, or writing an appellate brief – in other words, things that real lawyers actually do – rather than a traditional test.

I was also a part-time law student, taking four years to earn my J.D. instead of three. I typically had two or three final exams at the end of each term, with a couple of days off in between exams. That was the most law I had to remember for testing purposes at any given time.

By comparison, New York’s bar examination – which has a reputation for being one of the toughest – lasts two consecutive days and covers up to 18 areas of law. Day One involves a series of multipronged essay questions requiring instant analysis of various legal problems, plus 50 multiple-choice questions on state law. Day Two consists of 200 multiple-choice questions administered to attorney candidates nationwide.

Those rosy predictions about my success never took any of these facts into account. My friends had no idea of the range of subjects tested and no clue about my strengths (torts, evidence, constitutional law) or my weaknesses (commercial paper, secured transactions, and don’t get me started on property). “You’re a smart guy; of course you’ll pass,” they reasoned, as if the bar exam were simply a test of smarts. But it’s not. The bar exam is a test of rapid recall, a skill that takes time to develop.

Not only is there a staggering amount of information to recall, you must then be able to organize those thoughts with lightning speed, articulating various legal doctrines, court precedents, and statutory rules as they relate to the hypothetical scenarios presented on the exam. Knowing general rules of law in a given subject is not enough. The bar exam is notorious for testing the exceptions to the rule.

I liken the whole experience to being a contestant on Jeopardy!  Some questions seem to come out of nowhere and will stump you completely; others will look more familiar.  But even when you know the right answer, if you don’t respond fast enough, if you don’t state your answer in the proper way, and if you don’t strategize carefully heading into the final round, you will lose.

Based on the scores I was earning on my practice tests, I estimated my chances of passing the real thing were about 50-50.  My skepticism had nothing to do with my self-esteem. It was based on hard data. I was simply not achieving the level of mastery needed to ensure that I would do well. No amount of positive visualization or self-help happy talk could fix that. I needed some practical tools to boost my score.

In the end, I still came up short. It was devastating, and I wasn’t exactly open about sharing my results. I would reveal the outcome to anyone who asked, but I wasn’t going to announce that I’d failed the bar. When friends or relatives tried to press the issue by asking, “Well, what do you think went wrong?” I would cut them off.

“I really don’t want to discuss it,” I’d say, in the same way a crash victim will avoid talking about the traumatizing details of the accident.

Even before I knew my results from the July exam, I had made the decision that I would sit for the bar again if I didn’t make it on the first try.  My next opportunity would come in February, as the bar exam is only given twice a year.

Honestly, I don’t think I studied any more the second time around in terms of clock hours, but what I found was that I seemed to be internalizing more of the information. I became quicker on the uptake, and I was less of a mental train wreck. I am convinced that having taken the exam before was the biggest leg up I had in taking it again.

The results were announced in late April, via an email that arrived shortly after midnight. “Dear Candidate,” the letter began. “The State Board of Law Examiners congratulates you on passing the New York State bar examination…”

Yes! I did a little dance, called my mother, and posted the news on Facebook. A chorus of congratulations followed. This time, I graciously accepted the recognition, thankful that my moodiness of a few months ago had all been forgotten.

Having to sit for the exam twice taught me a lot, and I don’t just mean about the law. Taking the bar is sort of like running a marathon. It’s an accomplishment just to get through it without a total meltdown. Sometimes the best thing your friends can do is stand waiting for you at the finish line, ready to celebrate the fact that it’s over regardless of where you placed.

Elliott Lewis is a licensed attorney, author, and media professional. This essay was originally posted on Open Salon in May 2014. Visit Elliott’s website at


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