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Collecting Bar Exam War Stories

For years I have collected bar exam war stories, and I am renewing that mission now. Many have heard tales of something horrible that happened during the bar exam: earthquakes during the bar exam, people passing out during the bar exam, and applicants continuing to write as a fellow test taker was taken out of the bar exam test site on a stretcher. But there are so many untold near tragedies, and a few really comic ones at that.  Do tell!

Just a few days ago a student told me that on Tuesday of this past February Bar exam in California, apparently the fire alarm went off at 8:45 am, at the Ontario location. Allegedly the bar exam applicants all had to leave their seats and started moving towards the exits, just minutes before start time.  Thankfully, the situation was resolve and they did not lose any time in taking the actual exam.

A recent graduate told my class of her stories of being seated near the back of the room during her bar exam, close enough to the bathrooms to literally hear people throwing up throughout the exam.  She said in a perverse way it made her feel better.  (She may have been nervous but at least she wasn’t literally sick, she was better off than the folks she was hearing through the walls.)

A close friend of mine had a contact lens drop out on day one of his bar exam, just as he was about to read the first essay.  (He did not have glasses with him.)

What is your bar exam horror story?  Please share!!

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Failed the Bar Exam: what to do now?

Failed the bar?  Whatever else you do, the most important thing is to keep this point front and center:

You CAN do this!  Do you doubt that?  Answer this: are you the kind of person who quits when you stumble? Doubtful you would have graduated from law school if you did not have the kind of determination to see this through.  And you did.  You completed three or four grueling years pursuing your legal education.  There is a presumption that you are qualified to do the work it takes to pass.

Take the weekend and a few days next week if you need to be angry and sad and frustrated.  Then, dust yourself off and accept and believe that you CAN pass your next bar exam.

It is now problem-solving time.  How to pass the next bar exam?

1)   Re-take a full service bar review course?

2)    Take a supplemental Essay, MBE, and/or PT course to focus on my weaknesses?

3)    Hire a tutor?

Without knowing more about your scores, it is hard to know what each person needs. For some people, a tutor is helpful. But many people do not need the extra expense of a tutor.  If you scored lower than passing on the MBE portion as well as on essays and/or PTs, it might make sense to re-take a full service course. You can complete more practice tests, in all three areas, and continue to review the substantive law in all the areas you are weaker in.

The better you know the law, the easier you will understand the essay questions and answers.  If someone (a tutor) is just showing you technique and you are still weak on the law and have to do all of that law learning yourself, you can easily get overwhelmed.  Having a course may help you to pace yourself, and strike the balance between law and skills.

If you decide to re-take a full service bar review course, you don’t necessarily have to listen to every single lecture again, but you will have access to all the material if you need it.  Sometimes, studying the substantive law again will help it sink in, and help you really to get it. Couple that study with a daily schedule that includes taking practice tests and studying sample answers.

Then again, if your MBE scores were very high and you only missed because of essays or PTs, it might make sense to take either just a supplemental Essay or PT course.  ( offers such courses, at,  as do many other reputable providers.)

Talk with trusted colleagues and ASP faculty.  And, most important, develop a solid plan and get on track for success on the next exam!  You will go in to the bar exam test site with a “Been there, done that” edge.  And, July is yours to pass, so long as you lick your wounds, get back up, and get going.

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Taking the bar exam tomorrow: remember you earned your admission!

Had lunch with one of my students yesterday who flew across the country to take the bar exam.  We talked of the struggles during law school, of how much it took to just get to this point.  And, I listened thinking how proud I am, and how hopeful for the future.

I can only hope that the legal profession is filled with more people like this person and others who have overcome such adversity and who feel so grateful to have the opportunity to sit for the bar exam.

Just this year I am reminded of so many students who struggled during law school:

  • There was one who had a baby (her 4th child!) last month, and yet she missed only 2 days of bar review;
  • Another I learned suffered domestic violence and abuse all through law school who is just now getting divorced;
  • One student whose parents had to file for bankruptcy in May, just before her bar studies began;
  • A couple of my students were injured themselves, one who suffered a back injury found it excruciatingly painful to just sit through bar review lectures;
  • Several of my students lost parents and grandparents this summer;
  • Countless law students are struggling financially to pay for bar review and living expenses with no guarantees of immediate law job prospects.

Everyone has a story.  Everyone battles something.  I am humbled when I hear of these great challenges. And, yet people go on; they move forward.  And, tomorrow, they will all begin a great leap forward.

I know there is a temptation to feel angry and scared, bitter even, that you have to go in and take the bar exam and once again prove yourself.  You may be thinking, “I graduated from law school.  Isn’t that enough?!”

It is not enough.  You still have to take and pass the bar exam.  Accept it.  Do not fight it.  In fact, try to re-frame the image.  Picture yourself walking in to the exam tomorrow and know that you are lucky to be able to go in and take that step.  And, we will all be lucky if you take your intelligence, compassion, and humanity and use the law license you are working to obtain to help make the world a better place.

It is a privilege to sit for the bar exam, and a privilege to be able to practice law.  When you walk in to the bar exam tomorrow, remember that you are lucky.  Look around.  You are among the most educated people in the world.

And, you are working to obtain a license that will let you earn a living while changing peoples’ lives.  I had dinner earlier this week with a lawyer friend of mine, to thank him for helping me navigate legal waters that were confusing even to me, as a lawyer!  (If it’s bad for lawyers, imagine how lay people feel when facing legal battles. And, we know how many people act as pro se litigants…)

I know how many people this one lawyer has helped to survive and even thrive after divorces, how many businesses he has formed and saved, how many peoples’ families lived on comfortably after the death of his clients because he had ensured that their estates were in order, and so much more.  All across the state and nation, there are people whose daily lives are better because this man helped them.

So, yes, feel proud of yourself this week; you earned your bar exam admission ticket.  People cannot “buy” a ticket to take the bar exam. You must earn the opportunity to walk in those doors.

Hold your head up high tomorrow.  Go in with confidence.  And, remind yourself, you are not only on a path to do well, but one where you can also do a whole lot of good.


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On the bar exam and in law school, the most important first step is following the instructions

In a recent blog post by one of the nation’s leading Academic Support professors and authors, Amy Jarmon, wrote about the importance of following instructions and illustrated how students may suffer grave consequences as a result of not doing so. nI know of many people who have failed the bar exam because of not following directions.

All of the following are real examples of failing the bar exam (or not being allowed to sit in the first place) for reasons that were wholly unnecessary and could have been avoided by following directions.  I write these now as a precautionary tale —7 Warnings of What Not To Do on your Bar Exam:

  • Applicant completed the entire bar exam but failed to upload answers within the deadline and failed the bar exam.  (This is something you can be clear about ahead of time and take care of as soon as possible.)
  • Applicant inadvertently brought a banned item the exam site and was disqualified from even sitting for the exam.  (So easy to prevent this!) Read the directions about what you may and may not bring in.  Also, know what you must have (such as your admission ticket and identification).  And, prepare your “clear plastic bag” ahead of time.  Also, after carefully reading the instructions about any restrictions on the type of clothing you are allowed to wear into the bar exam, choose your clothing appropriately and set out what you plan to wear so you don’t “forget” on the mornings of the exam.
  • Applicant got off track with numbering on scantron (bubbling in the answer to number 65 instead of 64) and by the time he caught the mistake it was too late to fix it; he had to sit a second time for the bar exam.  (This is an easy mistake to make, especially late in the afternoon on Day 2 of the Bar Exam when you are exhausted. Just check the question and answer numbers to be sure they are the same, as you work, all day long.)  While I’m on bubbling, the machines will typically only read answers where the bubble is fully covered with the correct pencil.  Make sure you fully bubble in each of your answer choices, and don’t make extra marks on the scantrons.
  • Applicant was running late on the morning of the first day of the bar exam, arrived after the doors had closed, and was not allowed to sit for that exam.
  • Applicant’s computer died in the middle of writing the answer to the first question; rather than switch to handwriting, she gave up and walked out.  The examiners counted this as a “failed bar exam” on her record because she started the exam and did not pass it.  (Now, I realize this isn’t technically a failure to follow instructions, but I’m putting it here because her professors had told her about this possibility and suggested that every student practice handwriting at least a few essays during bar preparation in case this happens.)  I routinely tell all my students, if you should suffer any computer issues that are not quickly resolvable, pick up one of the pens (you will bring in your clear plastic bag), and write away.  Never give up!
  • Applicants routinely fail because of low test scores on bar exam essays when they issue spot and find random legal concerns that are not responsive to the specific interrogatories in that question.  The queries at the bottom of a bar exam essay fact pattern are your “instructions.”  Follow them.  Answer the question(s) asked, and only the question(s) asked. Do not go off and tell what you think is a “related” story.  No tangents.  No detours.  Read the question and give them what they ask for.

And, last but not least,

  • In performance tests, applicants frequently fail because of errors stemming from not reading the instructions such as 1) using the wrong format (having not read the instructions), 2) not complying with the respective weight allocation of each task as set forth in the instructions, 3) not taking into account what the client wants and needs (typically described in the task memo), and, even, representing the wrong side. I have seen a number of students write closing arguments in performance tests arguing for the party opposing his/her client. That simply cannot happen without either failing to read the instructions carefully in the first place or forgetting them somewhere along the way.  Why?  The very first thing performance test instructions say is who the client is.

So, moral of this story: when you take your bar exam (or if you are still in law school), follow instructions carefully!  Take the time to read and re-read them.  Think about your tasks before you write and while you write.  Understand and comply with all aspects of the bar examiners rules.



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Professor Berman’s Ten Top Tips for Ten Days Before the Bar Exam

In sessions I regularly lead each week before the bar we talk about pertinent issues of the week.  This week it’s all about how you are spending the last days before the exam.  Next week, we’ll walk through each exam day and evening and talk about how to stay strong until the last time is called, and how to prevent derailments.

Today, Professor Berman’s Ten Top Tips for Ten Days Before the Bar Exam:

1. Be sure you have your admission ticket. 

2. Read the rules on what you can and cannot bring into the exam.  (And, note differences on different bar days.  In some jurisdictions, MBE days have different rules.)

3. Keep working on one-page “cheat sheets” that summarize the main points of each of the tested subjects.

4. Keep reviewing practice questions and studying sample answers.  (Look out for frequently tested areas.)  At this point you may be issue spotting and outlining more than writing exams out in full, but still do some practice questions under timed conditions so you are on target with the speed as well as accuracy.

5. Continue training your critical reading skills.  Missing questions because you did not read carefully is most frustrating.  Keep practicing reading every word, and reading with your eyes, ears and fingers.  (Mark up fact patterns and write in the margins as you read, so you do not miss anything.)

6. Memorize rule statements.  Work those flashcards.  The biggest difference between knowing rules for MBEs and for Essays is that on the latter you have to be able to quickly and concisely articulate those rules.  So practice.  Practice writing rules, and saying them out loud.

7. Stay away from destructive people. (Re-read the section on Supporters and Saboteurs in Pass The Bar Exam.)

8. Make any last minute arrangements so there is nothing other than the bar exam to worry about during bar days. (Pay any outstanding bills, arrange for childcare, dog-sitting, etc.)

9. Take a minute to plan something fun for yourself and if you have a family or significant other you want to include do so.  It can really be helpful to have something to know you will be doing as a giant reward after that last time is called.  And it will really help keep those who love you from going stir crazy in the next two weeks just watching you.

10. Exercise and eat right.  It’s critical to maintain the stress levels now.  From this moment, until the last “time” is called by the proctors during your bar exam, you must stay strong and and be able to turn anxiety into action, and panic into power.


You got this!

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Bar Exam hotels –checking in today…

If you are checking in to a hotel today, near a bar exam site, spend some time scouting the place out!  Find out where all the restaurants are, where a nearby market is, when room service is served.  (Rather than even dealing with a crowded restaurant at lunchtime, you may want to buy or order yourself a lunch early in the morning, so it's ready for you when you return after the morning session.)  Find out if they have a gym or pool you can use. Is there a nearby movie theater. You may need something fun to do to unwind tomorrow night after the first writing day, so you take your mind off it all and can sleep Tuesday night to do well on Wednesday!

Bottom line.  Don't just go in and hole up.  Go in and make this place work for you for this critical week.

READERS NOTE:  Tell us how you rate your bar exam hotel.  What were the highlights and what would you change?  Would you recommend others taking the bar stay where you are for their exams?   Write in!

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What are you eating for lunch during bar days?

Practice now.  See how you feel after eating different types of foods, and plan what you’d like to eat for your "power meals" on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week!

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What are you doing the night before your bar exam?

What will help you relax, get into the right frame of mind for success, and help you sleep well?  Think about it.  Plan for it.  Don’t let anyone come between you and those plans…

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What are you wearing to the bar exam?

Pick something comfortable and, dress in layers.  Sometimes the test sites are too hot; other times you are seated right under an air conditioner.  The last thing you need is to be distracted because you are physically uncomfortable.

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Are you taking the Bar Exam on a Laptop?

If you’re in CA taking the Bar Exam on a laptop, you are surely familiar with the document posted on the State Bar website, a six page bulletin called "INSTRUCTIONS REGARDING THE USE OF LAPTOP COMPUTERS
FOR THE JULY 2008 CALIFORNIA BAR EXAMINATION," right?   (Other states have equivalent documents on their state bar websites.  Call and ask if you cannot readily find them.)  Have you studied this document?  Do you know all these rules and requirements so you’re comfortable going in?

And, most important, did you note the usage of all caps in the examiners admonition to familiarize yourself and practice with the software before the Exam?  (Perk up whenever you are "STRONGLY encouraged" about anything!)  Do those Practice Exams and test that internet delivered mock exam feature.  Check it all out ahead of time, and get yourself ready.  Also note the FAQ information for ExamSoft  at, and the ExamSoft support at 866-429-8889 or

Preparation for PASSing the Bar Exam requires substantive knowledge, skills, and practical preparation as well.  If you don’t know how to get out your brilliant thoughts, the graders cannot read them and PASS you! 


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