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How to Pass the Bar Exam on the First (or Second) Try

Updated: May 22, 2022

Updated May 2022 Intro: As another class of law school graduates approach the Mental Olympics this July, the following remains as relevant as ever. Check out the following tips for future attorneys, whether taking the bar for the first, second or fifth time:

On June 22, 2021 the American Bar Association (ABA) released data confirming what many feared: when controlling for other factors, race is a determining factor in one’s success on the bar exam, leaving black test takers less likely to succeed on the first try than test takers of other races and ethnicities on account of test related stereotypes and disparate access to resources; data from the National Council of Bar Examiners (NCBE) further confirms that those who fail once are less likely to pass on future tries. The following is my advice for first time test takers and retakers alike, as a black woman attorney who passed on the second try.

Roughly 3 years ago, I took Ohio's July bar exam fresh out of law school and only 2 months before moving cross country for my first shiny law firm position. Roughly 3 months later, results were in - I failed. After a weekend of self loathing, I picked myself up (off the air mattress I was sleeping on) ordered some furniture, starting with a bed, and began to strategize. While reaching out to mentors and contacting my commercial bar prep course provider for extended access, I also read First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and shortly thereafter Vice President Kamala Harris’ The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Aside from being my personal (s)heroes as black women attorneys and public officials, they both failed the bar exam on the first attempt. If my sudden, but necessary, ego death wasn’t sufficient motivation to continue striving to be the first attorney in my family, the revelation that I was in such good company, even amidst failure, certainly was. Still, I was determined to make sure no one else went through what Michelle, Kamala and I did.

The following are tips, initially shared on my podcast, Bur Speaks, for all bar examinees, but especially those testing after defeat.

1. Focus on your "why."

Taking the bar exam sucks. Retaking the bar exam sucks even more. Chances are, you studied your, you know what, off the first time; but it wasn't enough. Or was it? Maybe your review of the material wasn't the issue; perhaps you just took too long to type out your answers. Whatever the issue was, you'll figure it out as you re-study. Yet, even more important than the rule of perpetuity, or any other legal concept you didn't quite memorize, is why you're putting yourself through the mental anguish of (re)taking the exam in the first place.

For me, the answer was simple: to be an ethical, outspoken and effective advocate for communities and women of color in both the public and private sector. In the three years and three months since I started law school, that answer had changed, but by the time I sat for Ohio's February bar exam, I understood what I was there to do, and who I was doing it for. I refused to let fear associated with the reality that only 5% of attorneys were black, and just 2% are black women deter me from my ultimate goal. Instead, I used it as fuel to put in the work and practice the discipline necessary to rise to the occasion.

A little over two years later, this same strategy sustains me as a practicing attorney. Determining and focusing on your why will sustain you as well. Pro tip: write it on a a sticky note and post it to your bathroom mirror as a daily reminder.

2. Master the "how" of bar prep with universal strategies and tactics.

Barmax, Quimbee, Crushendo, Adaptibar, Barbri, Kaplan - take your pick. We all know the corporate giants that dominate the bar prep landscape. For a small donation of $2,000+ you too can get the exact same outlines and online lectures that all your classmates will have as they prepare for the exam. Sounds ridiculous, right? That's because, in part, it is. While I cannot recommend you forego a traditional bar course, having invested in one myself, I can say that these courses alone will not suffice to equip you with the confidence and hard skills to beat the curve a second, third or however many times it takes you to pass. As such, I recommend also investing in (or requesting as a graduation gift) one or all of the the following supplements:

3. Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D. Essay and MPT Books.

4. NCBE Study Aids (Note: certain NCBE study aids are provided as an attachment to the Strategies and Tactics for the MBE book; confirm which before purchasing).

*Note: there may be more recent versions of the resources listed above, however, I cannot vouch for them. As such, I recommend reading as many reviews as possible when purchasing items online. Also, be sure to check with your law school’s library and Dean of Students in case they offer these resources free of charge.

3. Practice self care daily.

If I had to rename the bar exam, I would call it the Mental Olympics. And if the path to getting there were a particular event, it would have to be the 300 meter hurdles. With only .36% of Americans boasting the title of licensed attorney, the stakes are undeniably high to qualify, let alone pass, the legal profession’s entrance exam - the final (visible) hurdle before practicing law. Luckily, training for the bar exam isn’t all that different than training for the actual Olympics (just go with it).

While long hours of pouring over black letter law and consulting supplements to help you identify and apply the law on a written exam are key to bar prep, ensuring your physical and mental stamina are in tip top shape are just as crucial. As such, I recommend incorporating physical activity and mindfulness techniques into your study strategy, consistently getting a good night's rest and creating a lifestyle that will sustain you throughout your career.

For me, this looked like a clean (mostly keto) diet, 40 minutes - 1 hour of cardio and/or strength training at least 4 times a week, yoga in between and reading books like Stress Less, Achieve More before bed. In the end, I was in the best shape of my life and using the stress of the exam to fuel, rather than depress me. By approaching test prep like training for an athletic competition, I arrived on day 1 of the February bar exam ready to win the ultimate trophy - my law license. *Note: I ate clean and exercised in the months leading up to my first bar exam experience, but I did not practice yoga and experienced my first panic attack leaving me overwhelmed and hooked to an EKG machine in the ER (dramatic, I know). Yoga’s breathing and meditative techniques, coupled with tips from the books referenced above, made all the difference.

4. Set boundaries with colleagues, friends and family.

There will never be a perfect time to study for the bar. Sure, you can book a flight to a remote island and study on the beach, but you'll probably be without the WiFi necessary to access online resources. With that said, instead of resorting to drastic measures to isolate yourself during an undoubtedly stressful time in your life, find ways to better manage time and expectations no matter where you are.

As dramatic as it may sound, a mass text, social media post or email (Bcc'ing everyone to avoid crowding inboxes with unnecessary responses), may be the best way for you to communicate your limited availability. Alternatively, you can let your friends and family know on a case by case basis that you will be intentionally under the radar until you reach your goal. However you choose to inform those who may depend on you or expect consistent communication, do so in a way that demonstrates respect and appreciation for their support and ensures the relationship will be intact when your work, related to the bar exam, is done. Of course you can schedule the occasional outing on weekends earlier on in your study schedule and encourage friends and family to uplift you by dropping off food and running errands on your behalf, but the reality is you will need to get comfortable with the word "no” and the sooner you do, the better.

*Note: there may be those who simply cannot understand the importance of healthy isolation in the context of bar prep. In this case, do your best to opt for physical separation to limit confrontation and trust that those who belong in your network will not create needless distractions.

5. Recognize your progress and envision success. Seeing is believing, and success on the bar exam isn’t the exception. To ensure you are prepared to convince the bar examiners that you deserve to be an attorney, I recommend creating visual reminders of where you have been to get to this point and more importantly, where you are going.

Here’s a list of reminders I used to affirm myself and manifest a beyond passing score on the bar exam in the days leading up to, and on test days:

1. My grad pics, posted on my office bulletin board as a necessary reminder that I’ve passed countless legal exams to get to this point. 2. A white board with tally marks for every time I finished reviewing a stack of critical pass flashcards covering an entire subject, to remind me that I was studying my a** off. 3. A vision board with my personal sheroes and written affirmations addressed to Attorney Ambur Smith.

These are just a few examples of things you can do to recognize your progress and envision success along what can be a lonely, but rewarding journey. And while you may opt for something more simple like a cell phone or computer wall paper just make sure they are visible, daily reminders of the path you are uniquely positioned to follow. In doing so, you‘ll drown out the inevitable self doubt we all face when accomplishing something less than 1% of the population has, and most importantly, you'll give the universe a better chance to conspire in your favor.

If you find the tips in this article helpful, please let me know by tagging #BurSpeaksBarPrep on social media and leaving a comment below. To inquire about personalized assistance on your bar prep journey email today.

For more information on bar exam performance in the United States visit:

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