My experience with bar exam self-study
This post is about something near and dear to my heart. I took the Washington State Bar Exam in February of 2014. I worked full-time as a mechanical engineer leading up to and through the exam. I did not take a prep course, and I passed on by first try. Here is why and how I self-studied for the Washington State Bar Exam.
In the months leading up to the state bar exam I had a lot going on. I was taking a heavy course load in law school, I was working full-time, and we were expecting our first daughter in December, two month before the exam. I knew I didn’t want to quit my job to study for the bar, and I knew I would be stretched between work, a newborn, and bar study. The typical prescription for bar study is for students to spend the entirety of their time in the 8 weeks leading up to the exam studying. When I say entirety, I mean that I got an email from my law school’s chair of bar studies in January telling me that at that point, I should be studying 14 hours a day. It’s worth taking a moment to consider why I got that email.
Every bar prep course hangs its hat on its pass rate. It is the only stat that matters. The higher the pass rate, the higher the demand for their service, and the more they can charge. It’s that simple. Similarly for law schools, the pass rate is huge. It has a direct and significant impact on the school's ranking and reputation. Therefore, both the bar prep courses and law school are incentivized to get as many students to pass as possible. Now, the bar prep course gives you plenty of material to study. There is not a shortage of stuff to cover. They could not substantially increase the pass rate by giving you more, bigger books or longer lectures. It’s pretty much on the students to study the stuff, memorize it, learn how to apply it, and do so efficiently upon demand. In short, it’s about the studying.
Now obviously, like anything else, students will experience diminishing returns as they prepare. Say I study for 100 hours and have a 50% chance of passing. Make that 200 hours and I’m up to 80%. 300 hours and maybe I’m at 85%. 400 hours and I might not even crack 90%. The point is that additional hours spent will increase your chance of passing, but that increase diminishes as you continue. The other point is that those hours are not free for students. 100 hours of bar study is a lot of work! I had friends who spent upwards of 500 hours studying for the bar. Those hours have no cost to the prep courses or the law school advisers. “Study more!” they said. Of course my counselor told me to study every waking minute. Why in the world would she do otherwise?
The Bar Studies Advisor at Seattle University School of Law told me my plan to forego a prep course was a bad idea. When I told her I wasn’t going to take time off from my job either, she visibly cringed. My friends didn’t exactly think I was crazy, but nobody even remotely considered joining me in the endeavor. By exam time though, I was extremely prepared, and I had spent less time, effort, and money, while enduring significantly less stress than my peers.
I began the prep process with research. I encountered an article by a Stanford grad who claimed to have passed after only 100 hours of study. I thought, well, maybe this guy is just phenomenally smart. I’m smart too, but I better hedge. Let’s plan on 200 hours total. It was less time than examinees typically spend, but I believed it to be a safe number.
From my own experience I knew that the longer I studied in a given session, the less marginal gain I received. I knew that I would probably get more out of two 3-hour days than I would out of one 10-hour day. I believed that my most efficient route to passing the bar was to start early and to study in shorter sessions.
I also began to strategize on what to study. Washington had just switched over the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), so there was data available on scoring and passage rates from other jurisdictions. After some analysis, I determined that pass rates were much more affected by the multiple-choice section than the essay section. The theory was that having a slightly outlying multiple-choice score could make up for extremely poor essay questions. I benchmarked that by scoring in the top quarter of multiple-choice scores, I had leeway to score in the bottom tenth of essays while still passing the bar. Furthermore, there were just six areas of law examined by multiple-choice, but a staggering 16 to prepare for in the essay section. I did not entirely neglect the essay prep, but I definitely focused my effort on multiple-choice prep.
Finally, I strategized on how I would study. Many of the bar prep courses delay focusing on substantive law. I went straight for the law. I memorized. I worked hard. I employed a flash-card program, Anki, that allowed me to focus on material I struggled with. I would see a card, and if I knew the answer easily, I could bury the card. If I struggled, I could ask to see the card again soon. It worked. It is definitely more taxing on the brain, but it is highly efficient. I wrote and mastered over 3300 flash-cards. My initial study for the first few months was basically just writing and reviewing the substantive law through flash-cards in a method that I knew to be very effective.
My schedule began by working at my leisure in November and December. I did some, but not tons. Toward the end of December, I switched to a schedule of studying 3 hours a day during the week, 5 hours on Saturday, and Sundays off. I continued working the whole time. I had a newborn in the house, and I did my part in waking up for midnight feedings and whatnot. In the weeks leading up to the actual bar exam, the demands of my day job spiked, coincidentally. I had a few 16-hour days of engineering work in the week before the exam. But I was ok because I had been studying, and I was already basically fully prepped. In the end I logged a total of 157 bar study hours.
I will not tell you it was easy. It might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I know, however, that my course of study was less difficult and stressful than my friends’. I’ll admit that I’ve never personally met anyone else who self-studied for the bar exam. Law school students, myself included, operate out of fear, so when everyone tells you that you have to take a prep course, you do it. My evidence is entirely anecdotal, but I know for certain that bar exam self-study possible.