15 Tips on Passing the Bar on First Attempt

15 Tips on Passing the Bar on First Attempt

I successfully sat for the February 2020 Georgia Bar Exam. As a foreign-trained lawyer, I heard so many negative things about the Bar Exam and I knew it was going to be a mammoth task, however, I was disappointed at the lack of resources for foreign-trained lawyers when I began investigating what it would take to successfully pass the bar. 

The lack of resources and information is what inspired this article, along with several requests I’ve received from other foreign lawyers seeking advice and tips on passing the bar.

To give some background, I'm an admitted attorney authorized to practice in South Africa with over 10 years of experience. South Africa, like the United States, is a common law country (I'll come back to this later). I did not pursue a J.D. (Juris Doctrate) or an A.J.D. (Accelerated Juris Doctrate) degree when I moved to the United States but instead decided to pursue an LLM (Masters of Law) degree as I already had a law degree from South Africa. 

Georgia allows foreign-trained lawyers to take the Bar Exam if they acquire an LLM which meets certain requirements from an ABA-accredited law school. This brings me to my first piece of advice - Know the requirements of the state you intend to take the Bar Exam in. Not every state allows foreign-trained lawyers to sit for the bar. It is important that you know what academic requirements you need to satisfy before applying to take the Bar Exam. On top of that, you also need to understand the character and fitness requirements of the specific jurisdiction in order to ensure you don't have any hassles along your application process. It is important to note that foreign-trained lawyer applications generally take longer to process, so do your research ahead of time and make sure you've built in all the lag time you need to ensure you sit for the Bar Exam you wish to take. 

Georgia doesn't currently use the UBE (Uniform Bar Exam) to conduct its Bar Exam. Georgia applicants sit for a two-day Bar Exam, with day one of the exam consisting of the MPT (Multistate Performance Test) and 4 Georgia Essays and day 2 being the MBE (Multistate Bar Examination).

Now that we've dealt with some of the background let me get into what I did and why it worked for me.

TIP 1: Begin you bar prep early: The volume of information an individual is expected to know for the Bar Exam (regardless of jurisdiction) can be overwhelming. As a foreign-trained lawyer this may be even more overwhelming, if like me, you completed a LLM degree which does not cover all the subjects tested on the Bar Exam. You should plan to start your Bar Exam preparation (bar prep) early. I studied for a total of 15 weeks for the Georgia Bar Exam. I did not work during that time and I treated my Bar Exam preparation like a full-time job - I studied from 9 till 6 pm on most days. (Due to certain medical conditions which I discuss in more detail below, I was not able to study in the evenings). I know that not everyone can study full time and may have employment or family commitments - my advice to you would be to budget a longer number of weeks for preparation and ensure when you do get a couple of hours to study it is dedicated focused study time. Many people who worked during their bar prep have gone on to successfully pass the Bar Exam. 

I started studying for the Georgia Bar Exam straight after the November Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE).

I requested early access from my commercial bar prep provider. I know certain commercial bar prep providers provide LLM bar prep programs however, most of these do not cover all the states, like in my case, there wasn't a Georgia specific LLM bar prep course when I sat for the Bar Exam. So, the alternative was for me to sign up for the regular bar prep course, and request early access so I could stretch out my study time. 

TIP 2: Enrol in a commercial bar prep course: Please don't fool yourself and think you can do this on your own. You will need a commercial bar prep course. However, as to which course you pick that is entirely up to you. Be honest with yourself about the type of student you are - do you need in person lectures? do you need a bar prep tutor who will provide you with individual feedback and assistance? do you study better on your own, so an online course suits you better? 

There are commercial bar prep courses for every type of student. Don't fall into the trap of thinking there are only 3 major commercial bar prep providers; their marketing campaigns are impressive but these companies may not necessarily be suited to your study style.  

Do your research and pick what works for you. 

[I went with Themis because of the cost, the short 20-minute online lectures, the dedicated essay grader, easy to use online portal and the fact that they released their pass rates.]

TIP 3: Test out the commercial bar prep courses when you take the MPRE: Most, if not all commercial bar prep companies offer free MPRE preparation courses. I short-listed the commercial bar prep companies I wanted to go with and I registered for all their free MPRE courses. I was able to access all their online platforms, get an idea of how they format their lecture notes and outlines, the quality of lecturers they have, as well as, got a feel for how they deliver information. 

The process of testing out the commercial bar prep courses will also give you an idea of what type of learner you are and help you make some of the decisions I referred to in Tip 2 above. 

TIP 4: Approach your Bar Exam preparation holistically: The one thing you will hear repeatedly about the Bar Exam, regardless of which jurisdiction your take it in, is that the Bar Exam is a marathon. In order to be successful in the Bar Exam you need to approach your preparation not only by addressing the intellectual aspects but also by taking care of your physical and mental well-being.  

It is a stressful exercise, so managing the other areas around the Bar Exam to minimize stress is key. (Refer to Tip 15 below discussing logistics). 

meditated every night before going to bed while I was studying for the Bar Exam. This exercise helped me tremendously. It allowed me to clear my head from the day's work. It allowed me to clear my emotions regardless of whether I had a bad practice session or couldn't get my head around a certain topic. And most importantly it allowed me to get a good night's rest for the following day's work. 

I made time for exercise. I am not a gym fanatic, but I tried to get at least three workouts a week while I was studying. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being chained at your desk day in and day out during bar prep. Don't forget that your body needs fresh air, sunlight, healthy food and water. A healthy body will only aid you during your studies. 

TIP 5: Mind over matter: In line with Tip 4 your mind is your biggest asset. 

You are going to go through a range of emotions during the bar prep period and over the two days (or three days depending on your state) you take the Bar Exam. 

The highs are going to be really high and the lows are going to be really low. 

In addition to meditation I did a lot of affirmation exercises. I wrote down my affirmations and went over them every couple of days. Figure out what uplifts you mentally and emotionally and work those things into your bar prep on a regular basis. 

Visual exercises helped me a lot. I visualized various scenarios - what would I do if I'm in the exam and I get an essay question where I don't know the law? what would I do if I'm running out of time on a particular section of the Bar Exam? etc. These exercises may seem a bit odd, but they helped me immensely especially when I found myself sitting in the Bar Exam faced with the very scenario I had visualized - an essay question I wasn't clear on what the law was. Because I had visualized this scenario several times during my bar prep, I did not panic, I did not waste time freaking out, I took my deep breathes and executed the troubleshooting plan I had prepared from my various visualization exercises. 

Keep negative people and negative situations at bay. The Bar Exam is not only about managing your studies but managing the people and emotions around you. There were several people in my life who I love dearly but had to avoid during the bar prep. It wasn't personal but I knew that all those people do is add to my anxiety. Unfortunately, those around you, who have not taken the Bar Exam will not truly understand the amount of stress and work you have to get through, so they will need to be managed at times.

TIP 6: Get reliable advice - podcasts: You are going to get advice from so many sources. It's important you weed out the noise from the substance. I subscribed to several bar prep podcasts hosted by individuals or companies who specialize in bar preparation. These podcasts provided me with a wealth of information, advice and tips along the way. 

The podcasts I listened to (available on Apple Podcasts) were:

  • Bar Exam Game Plan
  • Bar Exam Toolbox
  • Bar Exam Mind
  • The Extra Mile for Bar Exam Students 

All of the above podcasts also have twitter handles which I followed and got links to a lot of useful articles. 

If you're wondering when I actually had time to listen to all these podcasts - I would use my lunch breaks and time in the car as podcast time. 

TIP 7: Is social media your friend?: So I had to have a very serious conversation with myself about social media before I began studying for the MPRE and then the Bar Exam. I had to log off of most of my social media accounts during the bar prep because it was stealing a lot of my time and it did not make me feel good after being on the platforms. I ended up only using Twitter and I would literally go directly to the bar prep profiles I wanted to read and log right out again. 

Only you know what your relationship is with social media and only you can assess whether you need to have a social media sabbatical while studying. 

What I will say is about 3 weeks before the exam try stay away from any threads dealing with the hashtags #BarExam and #BarPrep. Other students' progress and/or anxiety will not make you feel any better.

Try not to compare yourself to anyone else during this period. There are various personalities you're going to come across from those who panic, to those who overstate how much they're studying and how well they're doing on practice exams etc. Try block out the noise. Focus on your own journey. 

TIP 8: Foreign-Trained Lawyers - treat the Bar Exam like a new blank slate: If you come from a common law country, you may feel like studying for the Bar Exam is like redoing your LLB degree all over again. A lot of the concepts, principles and areas of law are similar. However, do not fall into the trap of thinking everything is the same - it is not. 

I would like to believe the biggest advantage I gave myself was treating the Bar Exam as a whole new experience. I honestly had to push my 10 plus years of practice, my previous attorney's exam and other legal knowledge to the side. 

If you want to avoid a lot of frustration, try treating the Bar Exam as a whole new intellectual experience. 

TIP 9: You will require supplemental material: As much as I found my commercial bar prep course really good, I found that I needed supplemental study material. This is going to be especially true for foreign-trained lawyers. You will need additional resources to help you understand the application of the legal principles and you will definitely need additional resources to practice with.

A critical piece of advice I will give, especially for the MBE portion of the Bar Exam is that you need to practice with actual NCBE (National Conference of Bar Examiners) released questions. Not every commercial bar prep course uses released questions, instead, they create their own questions based on the exam format. These questions are okay to practice with but I saw a difference in the format and question style of the NCBE released questions and the questions my commercial bar prep course used. 

The additional resources I used to prepare for the Bar Exam were:

  • AdaptiBar 
  • Critical Pass Flashcards
  • Emmanuel Strategies & Tactics for the MBE
  • JD Advising MBE Tip of the Day
  • Audio lectures 

AdaptiBar - is a tool for the MBE portion of the Bar Exam only. It is an online platform of NCBE released questions, they also have a mobile app. AdaptiBar is great because it tracks your progress and gives you performance reports which you can use to assess your weak topics in each area of law. AdaptiBar also has a setting where the program can focus on the areas which you keep getting wrong, so it effectively adapts to your level progress. The true value of AdaptiBar came in the second half of my bar preparation because I did not know the law in the beginning - I had to get through the substantive law before being able to really access the full value of this product. However, it’s definitely one to add to your bar preparation journey. 

Critical Pass Flashcard - Pre-populated flashcards of the seven substantive MBE areas of law. Critical Pass also has a mobile app. Although the flashcards focus on the MBE subjects, I also found the flashcards to be extremely useful for studying for the essay portion of the exam. 

Emmanuel Strategies & Tactics for the MBE - a study guide on the MBE. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their MBE score. The book breaks down each subject on the MBE, and explains the tricky areas in each subject. It also provides a substantial number of released questions to practice. At the time of the February 2020 Bar Exam, the book was in its 7th edition. 

JD Advising MBE Tip of the Day - a daily email with a MBE question, answer and tip on the MBE Exam. JD Advising is a commercial bar preparation course that also provides bar tutoring. They have tons of useful articles on their website. Subscription is free for the daily MBE Tip of the Day. The emails generally focus on trick / difficult MBE questions and provide detailed explanations of what the trick is, why students slip up on the question and how to identify the correct answer. 

Audio Lectures for the essay-specific topics. I am not naturally an audio learner, however I found that I needed to go over chunks of information on the state specific law and did not necessarily want to re-read my outlines or notes. I made audio recordings of myself on my phone of state specific lectures, notes and summaries. I would listen to these jurisdiction specific audio recordings in the mornings, or while in the car, whenever I wanted to study something but didn't want to necessarily do a deep dive. 

TIP 9: Do not be afraid to step away from the commercial bar prep timetable and do what you need to do: Generally, your commercial bar prep course will come with a timetable and allocated tasks you need to complete each day. Try stick with this timetable as much as possible but towards the end of your bar prep period (i.e. roughly the last 4 weeks) do not be afraid to step away from the course and focus on the areas that need work. For me it was memorization. I had to take 3/4 days away from the online course and just focus on memorization. This made a huge difference in my practice tests and practice essays.  

I know a lot of people try reach the 100% completion target of their commercial bar prep course, however you need to be realistic with yourself and assess what is more important - going into the exam feeling confident and having worked on all your weak/problem areas or feeling good that you finished 100% of the study material. (I completed 90% of my commercial bar preparation course). The last two weeks before the Bar Exam I totally stepped away from my commercial bar prep course and focused on my problem areas and things I needed to do to be ready for the exam. 

In light of the fact that I started my bar prep course early I could do this comfortably. The earlier you start your bar preparation the more lag time you build into the course for yourself to take days where you do your own thing - e.g. memorization, focus on your supplemental study material etc. 

Do what you have tried and tested. You know what type of student you are so don't doubt what has worked in the past for you. If you need to write everything out to help with memorization - write it out. If you are an audio learner then make recordings of yourself explaining different concepts.  

TIP 10: Practice every part of the Bar Exam under time conditions: If there is nothing else you take away from this article, please take tip 10 and do it. The Bar Exam is a timed exam. The Bar Exam is a closed book exam. It is critical that you practice all parts of the Bar Exam under these conditions because that is what you are going to face during the exam. 

In the same breath please don't attempt practice exams until you are ready - if you are using a commercial bar prep course, the schedule will let you know when it’s time to take a practice exam and which one to take. Taking a practice exam before you have completed learning the substantive law will merely frustrate you and throw you into a low. 

However, if you have reached the appropriate stage in your bar prep and you take a practice exam and you get a low score, it is an indication that you need to go back over what you have done and figure out what you're missing. 

In particular for the MBE, when you reach a point in your practice exams where it seems like your MBE scores have plateaued, this is usually an indication that you do not know or understand the law. It’s a sign that you need to focus on memorization and understanding the law. Once you know and understand the law, you will see your scores improve. 

In regards to the writing portion of the Bar Exam, it is very important that you practice a full MPT and practice as many essay questions as possible. Both under timed conditions. You will be surprised how quickly time flies by when you're trying to identify all the issues and get the law on the page. The style and format of a Bar Exam essay is very different from a law school essay. 

For foreign-trained lawyers who have practiced in their home jurisdictions, the writing portion of the exam is actually an area where you can gain extra points. You would have first-hand experience of a lot of the client documents the MPT tests and the short to the point style of the Bar Exam essays is similar to the client memos and opinions one often has to draft when pressed for time by a demanding client. Trust your experience. The key to a successful writing portion of the exam is to write confidently and, in a manner, that a competent lawyer would write.

TIP 11: Apply for your accommodations early: every jurisdiction recognizes certain accommodations for the days of the exam. If English is your second language you may be able to apply for extra time. If you have a medical condition you can apply to sit next to the bathroom, bring in food and drink into the exam etc. 

Research the accommodations your jurisdiction provides ahead of time because the application cut-off dates for accommodations tend to be at odd times during the bar prep period. 

I was 35 weeks pregnant when I sat for the Bar Exam. (Yes. 35 weeks. 8 months pregnant.) And I knew I would require additional things to make my experience of taking the exam as comfortable as it could be considering the circumstances. 

TIP 12: Touch something every day: As I alluded to at the beginning of the article not everyone can commit to full time study - life happens. Try touch something Bar Exam related every day leading up to the Bar Exam. It could be as simple as looking at some flashcards and committing to memory that one difficult rule you seem to be struggling with, or writing one practice essay.

Touching something from the Bar Exam every day keeps your head in the game. 

I had various moments throughout my bar preparation where I physically couldn't do a full day of study and being able to touch one thing a day no matter how small kept me focused.  

TIP 13: Continuously assess and reassess your progress: Preparing for the Bar Exam for the most part is an independent exercise, especially if you're using an online course. It requires real self-honesty. At regular intervals, you have to assess your progress and identify if what you're doing is working for you or whether you need to change course. I would advise doing a self-assessment every week or two weeks. 

TIP 14: Know your stats: Every jurisdiction breaks up the weight of its Bar Exam differently. In Georgia the MBE is 50%, the MPT is 21,5% and the Essays are 28,5%. You need a score of 270/400 to pass the Georgia Bar. 

Use the weight of each portion of the exam to guide your studying. The statistics should be kept in mind when you're doing your regular assessments and figuring out how and where you feel it’s realistic for you to gain most of your points. 

TIP 15: Logistics, logistics, logistics: We spend so much time preparing for the substantive portion of the exam, a lot of people forget to plan for the actual exam days. 

The more you can sort out ahead of time the less stress you will have the days of the exam. Plan ahead on how you're getting to the Bar Exam (if you aren't staying at a hotel near the exam venue); where you're going to have lunch and what you intend on having for lunch. Plan ahead on what you intend doing during lunch. 

I had lunch in my car on both days of the Georgia Bar Exam. I made a packed lunch and I also made a breakfast snack because I knew I was going to get to the exam venue early and would most likely eat breakfast in my car too. I decided ahead of time that I didn't want to interact heavily with anyone during lunch and wanted to be alone in my car to regroup and refresh for the afternoon sessions. (There really is no need to discuss each section of the Bar Exam with fellow students at the end of each session – it doesn’t matter what they wrote or what you wrote, it’s done. It will only stress you out.)

I also spent my lunch break doing my affirmations and visualization exercises. The morning session on the first day of the Bar Exam left me frazzled, and I needed to regroup. I am so thankful I had a plan for regrouping myself in the exam (while I was running out of time) and during lunch, because I'm not sure if I would have been able to come back strong for the afternoon session of the exam. 

The more you can plan ahead and pre-empt various scenarios, the better equipped you will be to deal with the exam days. 

Remember to also spend some time on figuring out how you're going to spend the last weekend before the Bar Exam, (Several of the podcasts listed above have great episodes on how to effectively spend your last weekend).

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The Bar Exam is a marathon not a sprint. As you can read it was a process that involved various elements, but more importantly it involved committing to the task. 

Foreign-trained lawyers CAN pass the Bar Exam. More importantly, foreign-trained lawyers can pass the Bar Exam on their first attempt. Don't let the nay sayers and the Pessimistic Percy's make you think you can't do this. You can! and You will! Trust your experience. 

Good Luck on your Bar Exam journey! 

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