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For Those of You Who Didn't Pass the CA Bar Exam the First Time (I Am One of You)

For those of you who didn't pass the California bar exam on your first try, I want to encourage you.  I am one of you.

I remember getting the news that I didn't pass.  I remember doubling over in pain, laying on the floor of my Oakland apartment nearly unconscious, hobbled by an infection that ravaged my kidneys, bladder and entire urinary tract.

I remember the guy I was supposedly dating at the time calling to "console" me ("Sorry you didn't pass . . . ") and hanging up despite the fact that he knew I was ill.

I remember one of my closest friends coming to the rescue, literally picking me off the floor and carrying me to the hospital, where I was told that if I had waited any longer I would have had to have been hospitalized.

I remember having to tell my family over Thanksgiving dinner that I had failed.  My siblings tried to cheer me up and my dad reminded me, "You're the only one in this neighborhood qualified to even take the bar exam."

My mom was another story.  She knew a pity party when she saw one.  She said to me, and I've quoted her many times:

"Everybody falls down. But then you have to get up.  I'ma let you lay down there for a little while, but then you have to get up."

So my exhortation to you is this:  Get up.  Do not let this one setback keep you from your future.

Let's clear up a couple of things:

The California bar exam usually has more people who fail it than pass it.  More likely than not, you're in the majority, not the people who passed it.

Whether or not you pass the bar exam on your first try will not determine whether or not you will be a good lawyer.  I've met a lot of great lawyers who did not pass on the first try and a boatload of lousy ones who did.  The bar exam is not a reflection of your ability as a lawyer; it's a reflection of your ability to figure out what the bar graders want to see and give it to them in the manner in which they expect to receive it.  Your law school may or may not have prepared you to do those things.  I know mine didn't.

Harvard Law School, in my opinion, had professors who had little time or willingness to teach you the blackletter law you need to know like the back of your hand in order to pass a bar exam.  The professors, for the most part, were more enamored of legal theory.  Teaching the actual law was considered rather pedestrian, something you as a student could and should figure out on your own.  I was able to get average grades with a mediocre knowledge of the law and the ability to parrot back whatever legal theory my professors were enamored of.  Plus, most exams were open book exams.

The California bar exam, in contrast, was not, and it required a depth and breadth of knowledge of the law that I was not prepared for, despite the fact that my BarBRI practice exams said otherwise.

Another thing:  You're more likely to pass the bar exam given in February than the one given in July.  All the people who passed on the first try are gone, and there's a percentage of February takers who are multiple takers (more than two times) who, statistically speaking, may never pass.  The competition is less, well, competitive.  At least that's what Emerson Stafford told me, which leads to my next point:

Take a bar review course that has a focus on writing essay exams.  Emerson Stafford was my bar review course instructor the second time around and the founder of Emerson's Tutorial Bar Review.  Emerson taught his course from his Victorian home on Fell Street in San Francisco, and at every class we had to write a practice exam for the first half hour or so of the class in what was the equivalent of his living room.  Just having to put pen to paper and write an answer, even if you didn't know the law, was good practice.  As my knowledge of the law increased, my essay exams improved.  Emerson has retired, but he has donated his lectures to the public.  They can be found here.  The BarBRI course I took the first time gave me a false sense of confidence about the quality of my essay exams.  Emerson did not, requiring greater and greater analysis and a minimum word count to get a passing grade.  Emerson was an engineer and had the statistics to show the minimum number of words needed on a California bar essay exam to be competitive.  He also used to predict with great accuracy which topics would be tested on the bar exam.  People who didn't even take his course would try to find out what his predictions were.  If it weren't for Emerson Stafford, I doubt I'd be a practicing attorney today.  I can say that about myself and my friends from Harvard Law School and Boalt Hall who were sitting next to me in Emerson's class.

Here's some more advice:

1) Put the entire bar review course on flash cards and memorize it.  No, I'm not kidding.  The process of putting the entire BarBRI bar review content  from my first bar review course on flash cards -- over 3,400  or so flash cards written by hand in my case -- helped me learn all the material the second time around.  I was writing those flash cards all the time and memorizing them everywhere and any time I could -- while eating dinner, while cooking dinner, while sitting on the toilet, you name it.  I would separate out the flash cards I'd learned from the ones I hadn't learned and kept focusing on the ones I didn't know.  By the time of the exam, there were only 200 out of the 3,400 cards that I didn't know cold -- about 5.8%.  Not bad.  When you are taking the bar exam, you have no time to think about what the law is -- you need to be spotting issues and writing analyses or picking the most correct multiple choice answer.    You simply have to have all the law memorized.  There is no short cut for this. I had to study for the bar exam the second time while finishing up my master's degree.  If I can do it, so can you.

2) Categorize your errors.  This is another thing Emerson taught me.  Whether you're taking a multiple choice practice exam or an essay practice exam, categorize the errors you made into one of three categories:  1) Misunderstood the question; 2) Didn't know the law; 3) faulty analysis.  If your errors are primarily category one errors, slow down when reading the question.  If they are primarily category two errors, go back and review the law.  If they are primarily category three errors, slow down in outlining your answer or analyzing the question.

Throughout my career I have been a law clerk for a federal judge, an associate with large and small law firms, a law professor, an attorney with a Fortune 500 company, and now the general counsel of a small government agency.

Not bad for someone who didn't pass on the first try.

Good luck and get up!


Steven said…
Isn't it great to have someone in your circle who can spot a pity party!
@Steven -- Indeed it was. There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss my mom. She believed that women didn't have the luxury of being weak because too many people, usually children, depend on them.
Anonymous said…
Well said. The bar exam is truly about being able to give the examiners the information in a format they find acceptable. Knowing that going in is key.
Anonymous said…
Do you still have the "What to Write" series books by Emerson?
Melvyn Gonzales said…
How do I contact Emerson Stafford to register for the CA bar review?
I'm trying to find the "What to Write" series books by Emerson for sale. No longer available from Emerson, Amazon or eBay. Ideas?

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