As I head out the door for a winter holiday in southern China (which will be blogged in due course), I am happy to announce to the world that I passed the New York and New Jersey bar exams in July 2007. I spent a lot of time reading about other people’s study methods on the internet, and now, in the interests of propagating science, I will now share my methods.
I didn’t heed any advice I found on the internet.
At the urging of a close friend, I shunned BarBri, the almost universally accepted gold standard in bar exam study, and enrolled in one of its New York competitors, Pieper Bar Review. This decision meant that I had the choice of either (a) studying at home or (b) moving to New York for the summer. After an abortive apartment-hunting trip in April, where I realized that even a bedroom in a shared apartment in a so-so area of Manhattan would set me back $900 a month, I decided to choose option (a).
This meant that my lectures were on audio CDs, my textbooks were sitting in my bedroom, and I basically had three months to work through all the material that might show up on the bar. I started going through the first lectures before final exams were finished, and ended up filling two five-subject notebooks with notes (front and back) over the course of the summer. As it turned out, this was the only concise outline of the material I had, because Pieper doesn’t make “mini-review” outlines for the bar subjects. So I spent quite a bit of time going back through hastily-scribbled notes, trying to piece together what I had learned.
I tried practice essays. I flunked every one. I panicked quite a bit. I went on polyphasic sleep for a couple of weeks in an attempt to increase my available waking hours for studying (it didn’t really work and probably just annoyed my roommate). I zoned out during property law lectures and poked around the internet finding creative trips on which to spend my frequent flyer miles. I spent hours on MSN Messenger with my then-girlfriend in Tokyo, and after we broke up (online) I spent hours talking to random people on Facebook and Mixi. It was better than the despondency of being buried in material I didn’t know or particularly understand.
After going to see my parents for the Fourth of July, I came back to Philadelphia, still feeling like I was on a short path to failure. I started making flashcards and began force-feeding the law into my head. This was the same method I used to burn Japanese vocabulary into my head back in high school, so I figured it would be good for something. When Pieper sent out his predictions a couple of weeks prior to the exam, I shifted my focus to the areas which he said would be on there. The stress level was still high.
Finally, a few days out, I resigned myself to the fact that the exam was coming, resolved that I was going to take it, and reminded myself that even if I failed I had come a long way just by taking it.
On Monday, I rented a car and drove from Philadelphia to Albany. My car, which I figured would be an ultra-typical economy car, turned out to be a silver Ford Mustang. It didn’t drive amazingly well, but I felt cool taking it up the Jersey Turnpike and through the Catskills.
I brought my flashcards and a couple of bar books with me, but never used them. I decided that if I didn’t know the material, I wasn’t going to learn it the night before the exam. So after I checked into the hotel, I had some pizza and a glass of wine downstairs, took a hot bath, and spent the evening in bed amusedly watching the Democratic presidential debate.
On Tuesday morning, I had bacon and eggs for breakfast, drove into downtown Albany and went into the hotel a couple of hours early. I was feeling bizarrely calm. A couple of my law school friends started showing up in various stages of exhaustion and exasperation. So I left the hotel and wandered out into the city, focusing my attention on the awesome Gothic campus of SUNY.
Then it was time to go in and take the exam. We were all lined up at tables in a ballroom. I was ready to go. Essay question 1: the corporations and contracts essay.
I opened the exam book. Question 1.
It was a question about forging checks.
I didn’t know the answer, so I made it up. The first issue is whether there was a forgery…
Fortunately the next two essays were more familiar material for me, and they came in the order I expected. So far, so good. Then some straightforward multiple choice problems, and I was out for lunch.
None of the food in Albany looked particularly good. There were law students everywhere. I drank some cranberry juice and walked across downtown to the convention center, which was mobbed with young Chinese and Eastern Europeans loudly discussing the exam in their native tongues. This was somewhat amusing.
I finished the first day on schedule, got in my car before most people had even left their seats, and sped away down the New York thruway back to Philadelphia, intent on getting a good night’s sleep before Wednesday’s 200 multiple choice problems in south Jersey.
The Jersey test site was at a large event hall, not too far from the east bank of the Delaware. I was an hour and a half early this time, and spent the run-up to the exam having a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast in the car and listening to the BBC World Service. It was a good way to spend the morning. Wednesday passed by smoothly.
Thursday’s essays seemed awfully easy, the sort of material I could have recalled from my first-year law classes. (Jurisdiction of federal courts? Puh-leeeze!) This reaffirmed what one of my professors had told me a few months before: “If you’ve studied enough for New York you’ve studied way too much for New Jersey.”
Peeling out of the parking lot and crossing back into PA was the best experience of the year, and not having to study for the bar exam any more almost felt better than passing the bar exam.
Let me qualify that statement
SCENE: A hostess club in Tokyo, Thursday night. JOE is being served mizuwari by three unnecessarily attractive young ladies, who are oblivious to the fact that he still has little bits of vomit on himself as a result of reacting badly to a co-worker’s idea to sample the last restaurant’s entire selection of saké.
JOE: So you see, I had these two bogeys coming at me, very possibly with IEDs, and then I realized that I would rather… hang on, someone’s calling me. (checks phone) “From: Curzon. Message: The Jersey bar results are online.” Holy shit! Holy shit!
CO-WORKER: Holy shit?
JOE: The bar results are out! And… (pause) I can’t read the page on my shitty keitai screen. Fuck! Fuck!
HOSTESS #6: Fuck?
JOE: Well, like I was saying, we lost a lot of good men back there…
FAST FORWARD: Joe stumbles out of a cab and into his apartment around 2:30 AM. Said apartment looks very much like it has just been visited by bogeys with IEDs.
JOE: Okay, web site, web site. Okay! Results by Bar ID. Bar ID? Um. (sifts through a pile of books, laundry, pencils and bento boxes on the floor) Dammit!
…Twenty minutes of hung-over negotiating with parents over the phone later…
JOE: Fingerprinting notice! Yes! Fingerprinting notice! That’s it! I’m 1-2… WOOOOOOOOOOO!! (picks up phone again) I PASSED! I PASSED! (insert Howard Dean scream here)
The New York bar wasn’t quite as dramatic because it took me several days of phone calls to get the results through Albany’s insane bar exam bureaucracy. (Albany, if you’re reading this: Get it together. Go to Trenton and take notes. That’s all I’m gonna say.)
Ten things I learned in the process
- Studying for the bar on my own was among the most aggravating and alienating experiences of my life. The one thing I regret is not being closer to friends and family, because I really had very little to maintain my perspective on things while I was trying my damndest to focus on learning the law.
- Drinking coffee after 6 PM will keep me up for twelve hours. Drinking coffee between 5 AM and 8 AM will put me to sleep immediately.
- The most important element of commercial bar preparation courses is their predictions at the end of the course, since this keeps you from stressing over stuff that is unlikely to appear on the exam. (But make no mistake, you still have to have a well-rounded knowledge of the material to pass.)
- Be comfortable. Even if it doesn’t improve your performance, you’ll have less to regret whether you pass or fail.
- Law school grades have no correlation whatsoever with how much you understand a subject. I sucked in Property. It was my worst class by far. When I took practice tests for the bar, it was my best subject—and my worst was Torts, where I had an A in my first semester of law school. I blame it on the professors, of course.
- A waffling answer off the top of your head is often not that different from a reasoned opinion based on rules of law. In fact I swear I was channeling Strong Bad on some of the essays, e.g.:The issue is whether the check was a negotiable instrument. In order to be negotiable, an instrument must be a promise to pay money. This check was a promise to pay cheese. Therefore it was not a negotiable instrument. At my standard rate this answer cost you $150, not including expenses for pencils and Reese’s Pieces.
The funny thing is that if you look at “model answers” put out by the bar examiners, a number of them were obviously written by people who are not native speakers of English. You can tell because they contain lines like “Under law of New York, divorcing spouse get child support based on income and number of child supports, in the percentage which a law provides.”
- Eating peanut butter and eggs makes you smart. Eating an entire meat lover’s pizza makes you sick. I tested these theories many times and I still haven’t died or turned into gelatin, so I must be doing something right.
- Airplanes are good places to study. Diners in South Philadelphia are not (damn you, Tom Cruise, for giving me bad ideas).
- When it comes down to it, you can’t follow people’s advice on studying too closely. You have to do what works best for you. Hopefully you’ve learned that somewhere in the 17+ years of formal education you’ve undergone prior to the bar.
- But if you’re at a loss for ideas, do this: get some practice exams (the PMBR 3-day course is great for this, but skip the 6-day course), do them, note your weak points and come up with ways to improve on them. Don’t assume you really need to do half a bar exam every day just because some instructor said you should.
And if you’re taking the bar in the near future: just treat it like what it is. Something else that you have to complete before you earn the right to serve people and/or throw your weight around in business meetings. You have to take it seriously, but in the end it’s only as serious as you make it in your head, and if you keep at it for a couple of months you’ll do fine.
(Next stop: the Japanese bar?)