Thursday, February 25, 2010

Three Bar Exams: a Comparison.

General Impressions:

California: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
Overall, I’d say the California bar lives up to its expectations of being difficult. I sat for the July 2009 exam. I did not take a prep class, but bought old Barbri books and prepped myself. I probably spent about two months preparing as I somewhat tracked the Barbri class schedule.
With respect to the essays, after doing past exams, there was really no discernable pattern that I could find. The previous exams seemed to be totally at random both in subject and in the topics tested. Thus, you really do have to be prepared to test on any subject and any nuance topic in that subject, which is quite intimidating. For example, when I took the exam, we were tested on prosecutorial ethics as well as malicious prosecution, which are both very miniscule topics in my opinion. Further, you are also tested on those topics in depth, so you have to have somewhat of a deep understanding of a multitude of things. While this is what makes the California bar hard the first time, I do not think this is what causes people to fail the bar over and over again.
I suspect what makes the California bar exam hard for most people are the performance tests. California issues two three-hour performance tests with extensive libraries from which to develop an answer. I know BarBri “preps” people from this section, but I honestly do not think you can study for it. I spent ten minutes preparing for the performance tests – that is, I looked at one previous performance test and quickly decided that I would not waste any more time attempting to prepare for it. Because you cannot really prepare for it, it seems like you either have it or you do not. You can either produce a decent memo or argument under a time crunch or you cannot. If you cannot, you will most likely fail to bar over and over again. However, the good news is that if you are half way decent at legal writing, you have such an advantage on the California Bar – 1/3 of your exam is based on sheer ability rather than brute memorization or ridiculous multiple choice questions.
The MBE is a joke. Everyone knows that at no point will a client come to you and say: “I have a legal problem, here are the facts. I have narrowed the answer down to (a), (b), (c), and (d). Now, without looking at any law or asking me any follow up questions, tell me the right answer. Oh yeah, and some of the answers require you to make factual determinations that you would have no control over in an actual dispute and/or contain areas of law that the Supreme Court are still debating over. XoXo.” So yeah, I get the impression it is basically designed to have you narrow the answer down to two, then guess. If you prepare well for the essays and do a bunch of practice MBEs to enable you to discern when there is a red herring (i.e. the Dead Man’s statute, etc), you should do very well on the MBE. I left thinking it was terribly hard. But, then again so did everyone I know.
The last thing about the California bar is that it is exhausting – three days back to back takes a wear on you. For each section, I wrote to the very last second and always wished I had more time. By the second performance test, I was crashing and was very happy when it was over.
I left the bar feeling like I could have failed. I knew I did well on the performance test, but honestly made up law for an entire essay question. In the end, I passed.

Louisiana: Monday, Wednesday, Friday

I have no idea why the Louisiana bar posts such a high percentage fail rate. The bar examiners all but pass you before you begin – you just need to do the work to get there.
There are nine subjects on the LA bar. What most people do not know is that you can pass the bar, fail the bar, or conditionally fail the bar. Unlike other bars, Louisiana grades each subject separately and you pass by subject rather than as an average of all of the subjects. There are code subjects and non-code subjects, but basically you can completely pass by passing 7 of the 9 subjects. Then, even if you fail five subjects, you can conditionally pass. That is, you can sit for a later bar and only have to take those subjects that you failed. So, that being said, when you sit for the bar, knowing that you can kind of take it “bit by bit” there is a large pressure that is off.
So, I took the LA bar in February 2010. Unlike the California bar, my job did not depend on me passing, and I took it only to have options later in life. So, not only was the pressure off, I decided that I would only sit for 7 of the 9 subjects, hoping to pass those or, if not, condition and only sit for two subjects at a later date. I studied from old Barbri books and outlines I borrowed from a friend. I would say that, at best, I studied for about a month, four hours a day, maybe three or four days a week. That may be exaggerating. Let’s just say I put in about 15% of the effort I put into the California bar.
Knowing exactly what you are to be tested on at a certain time on a certain date is very helpful. I was able to tailor my studying accordingly. Further, Louisiana holds no secrets about the topics of the test. In fact, if you do old tests, you are more than equipped to take the exam as nearly all of the test is complete unaltered repeats of old exams. Of course, this left me thinking during the test that I wished I had studied more. Further, unlike the California bar, many of the subjects are not tested like a law school exam with a long fact pattern and knowledge dump. There are so many 1% or 3% questions (ex: how long do you have to answer a complaint). With these, you either know it or you don’t. You cannot really b.s. around a pointed question seeking a specific almost one-word answer if you do not know it. So, basically, I think anyone can pass the Louisiana bar provided they put in the work, but also see why so many “smart” people fail it – because they just do not put in the work.
With respect to the exam being an entire week long, I have mixed feelings. It was helpful as I was able to reserve things to study for the days between. Also, I was able to have drinks between, which was much welcomed. However, it did feel like I was taking the bar forever. Further, while I did not have to pay to stay in a hotel, I’d imagine it would be ridiculously expensive to stay in a hotel for 5 or 6 nights.

New York: Tuesday

I have to say that the New York bar exam is not all it is cracked up to be. In fact, I found it to be quite easy. Now, a caveat to that is the fact that I did not study at all and answered all of the questions with Louisiana law. Usually, I think when you leave a test thinking it was easy, that is bad news. No doubt, I will fail. Why did I do this? Obviously, because I am a moron. But, more accurately it is because New York does not allow you to apply to sit for the bar after the deadline and pay a late fee, and at the time I thought there was a possibility I would practice in New York. My sentiments changed, I had nothing to lose, and I had already transferred my MBE from California. So, I decided to just show up. So, I took this in February 2010 as well.
First, I found the MPT to be a lot easier than California. There was only three cases in the library and it was structured to be done in half the time. I thought it was very straight forward, and the cases in the library spelled out the argument you needed to make. I thought the California Performance Test made you do a bit more creative argument or thinking than the MPT.
I thought the multiple choice were a bit redundant. There is already the MBE, so it seems unnecessary to add more practically inapplicable multiple choice to a profession devoid of multiple choice. Nonetheless, I was happy to have them as I did them all before I embarked on the essay questions. This was helpful in that many of the multiple choice almost spelled out elements that could be used to answer the essays. Because I had never looked at secured transactions, domestic relations, or really any of the New York topics, this was invaluable. I imagine if I had studied for the exam, the multiple choice would have triggered my memory for things that I may have forgotten.
With respect to the essays, I found them very straightforward. They asked pointed questions rather than just giving a convoluted fact pattern and ask you to explain all claims and defenses. Also, I did not think the essay questions tested on obscure topics or details. They were very fair and straightforward, and I honestly believe if you put in the work, you should not be surprised at all. I did not feel time pressured, although on the other hand, I also did not have a depth of information from which to fill the time.

Facility:

California:

I took the bar in San Mateo and stayed at the Marriot. The Marriot was nice, but it cost a pretty penny to get there. I was lucky enough to have a friend who I shared the hotel with and stayed only the minimum amount of nights, but I imagine if you did not, you could wind up paying almost $1,000 to just take the bar. Also, it was about a 25 minute walk to the testing center. This was pretty annoying for most, but I enjoyed the walk in the morning to calm my nerves.
The facility itself was a large warehouse and so was very drafty. There was no clock in the room, which was frustrating. Also, there was no place to eat near it, so we had to walk pretty far to get to either a diner or Whole Foods. This is frustrating when you cannot bring in food to the examination room.

Louisiana:
The bar was issued at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. It is about as far from anywhere in New Orleans as you can get and not be in Baton Rouge. Also, they required you to be there at 7 a.m. So, in order to get there on time, I had to leave my house around 6. That’s just absurd. Also, it was issued the day after the Superbowl (that the SAINTS were in for the first time) and in the middle of Mardi Gras. Scheduling FAIL.
The facility was very lax in that you could just bring whatever you wanted and leave it outside the room. I’m pretty sure it would be very easy to cheat. The room was freezing. I had to wear a sweater and a scarf and was still shivering. I brought my lunch for the only day I stayed through lunch. I’m pretty sure you would have to have a car in order to get lunch and there is really nothing near here. Also, no clock.

New York:
I took this bar at Empire State Plaza in Albany. I was dropped off, but if I drove here, it would be a nightmare as it is very confusing and the parking is expensive. The room was a good temperature, but there was no clock. The best thing about this facility is that in the building, there is everything you can imagine for lunch in a two minute walk.

This leaves me asking three questions:
1. Why cant the bars spring for a clock?? It would be very helpful, especially because the exams do not necessarily start “on time.” Just invest in a big digital clock that keeps the official time or counts down from 3 hours or whatever.
2. Don’t these people realize how much money they could make if they contracted with a catering company to sell food at lunch? Even one of those fancy boxed lunches would be great.
3. Why do people even pay for Barbri or Kaplan or whatever? You can totally do this on your own. Buy some old books for $200, motivate yourself, and save $4,000. That is way too much money to spend if you don’t need to. I was able to fund a two month Mediterranean vacation with the money I did not spend on Barbri. And yeah Greece > Barbri.

People:

Overall, I found everyone to be really relaxed. The people in New York seemed to be the most stressed while the people in California seemed to be the most relaxed. Not to perpetuate stereotypes, but yeah. I really enjoyed all of the people I sat next to. Frank in California put his watch between the two of us so that I could keep my time, Kelly in New Orleans was really nice and reminded me that I forgot to turn in my USB with all of my answers on it, and James in New York shared his fizzy coca cola candy with me.

Hope that helps.

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