How To Improve On All 3 Sections Of The Bar Exam

By Dennis P. Saccuzzo & Nancy E. Johnson

Bar exam advice is easy to come by. The problem is separating the bad from the good. A lot of what you hear is uninformed, untested, and sometimes just plain bad.

Take MBE practice. There is a time-honored tradition of reading and studying, if not trying to learn and memorize, everything found in explanations of MBE items. Most of these rules are obscure, difficult to learn out of the context of an organized body of knowledge, and unlikely to be tested. Instead, be concerned only with two answer choices: the wrong one you chose and the one the answer bank says is the correct one (which you didn’t pick). Just try to figure out why the answer you picked was wrong and why their answer choice was better. If you can’t figure it out in 3 or 4 minutes, move on. Do not try to learn or memorize the law from the obscure rules you will find in the explanations. That should save a lot of time that can more profitably be spent taking more practice items, or on the PT and learning the law.

Here is an approach we recommend for those who want to improve on the MBE:

The basic idea is to take the items one at a time, and look up your answers as you go. Begin with the call of the question and try to state in your mind what subject is being tested. Then read the hypothetical with 2 goals: to remember the facts, and to draw sub-conclusions if possible. Then treat each answer choice as a yes-no problem, and if you say, “No” to an answer choice, supply the reason why that choice is wrong (such as misstates the law, or misstates the facts). Then check your answer as discussed above.

As to the PT, there are only 3 things that matter: (1) extracting the full structure of the law from the Library, (2) applying that law to the key facts in the File (not to the facts in the cases in the Library), and (3) being responsive. Nothing else matters. Therefore, if you want to improve on the PT, you’ve got to work on developing the basic skills. There is nothing to memorize.

Extracting the law properly is a skill that can be developed by practice; it’s the same with applying the law to the facts in the client file. Resist the temptation to brief the cases in your answer. It just looks bad. Instead, practice the basic skills regularly during bar review, and check yourself by making sure you have fully figured out the law in the Library. Also make sure that after each headnote, the first thing you write is a responsive rule of law or legal doctrine. Then discuss the facts in your File in relation to the rule or law stated.

Improving your analysis will help both on the essays and the PT. Analysis means relating the stipulated facts to the rule of law. This principle is the same for essays and PT. Analysis is not telling the reader what one or the other party will argue, as in an opening statement. Strong analysis tells the reader what the facts do show in relation to the law, just as a closing argument would do. For most issues in a bar hypothetical, the facts heavily favor one conclusion. When this is the case, simply make a cohesive argument for that conclusion, and don’t make a strained counter-argument.

Write practice essays open-book, and only after you have reviewed the subject. It should not take more than a maximum of 12-15 written essays (across all subjects) and about 5 written PTs to get you up to speed. Anything beyond that should be careful issue spotting. Too much writing without rapid accurate feedback from an expert wastes time and tends to reinforce errors, while giving a false sense of confidence. The best way to improve is to make deliberative adjustments based on expert feedback.

Memorization comes at the end, and not at the beginning. Understanding precedes memorization. In fact, understanding is a necessary first step in learning. After understanding and learning, memorization falls right into place. A critical question concerns what to memorize. It is not productive to memorize everything. Focus on a small core: your culled-down final outlines. Less is better.

Here is some additional advice that should stand the test of time and survive passing fads:

1. Have an approach to the MBE before you sit for the exam, including a timing strategy and a guessing strategy.

2. Understand what your real tasks are in the PT. Practice extracting an organized structure of the law from a closed universe library, and practice applying that law to a hypothetical set of facts.

3. When answering any essay or PT, after you headnote an issue, the very next thing you must do is write down a responsive rule of law or legal doctrine. Then discuss that doctrine using the facts in the hypothetical.

4. Have a plan for memorization and know that retrieval and phased learning are two of the most effective ways to memorize a large body of knowledge. Retrieval is the effort to recall, or ‘fishing back the information’ you just studied, as psychologist William James used to say. Phased learning means coming back to the material in a systematic way over time, and not simply trying to mass all of your practice on one subject and then be done with it. It is well recognized by psychologists that phased learning produces far better recall than massed practice does. For example, in our phased learning approach we guide people through all of the tested subjects in depth and then back through all of them 2 more times.



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Dr. Dennis Saccuzzo is a professor emeritus of psychology at San Diego State University, where he was a professor from 1975-2011. He is the co-author of "Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications and Issues," now in its ninth edition and used in major universities and colleges worldwide. Dr. Nancy Johnson is a statistician and researcher who has taught law and psychology at the graduate level since 1992. They both are practicing California attorneys, licensed psychologists, and co-founders of Applications of Psychology to Law Inc., an educational corporation, which produces PowerLaw and other effective study tools for Bar Candidates, and whose mission is the application of evidence-based psychological principles to the study and practice of law.