I’ve gone through the gauntlet like many of my fellow brethren and had to retake the CBX at least once. Let me break down my story and I hope it will shed light for future test takers on how they should approach the exam.
A little about me: Graduated from a T20 law school (not that it matters tbh). Did ok in law school. GPA was bottom half of class.
July 2016 CBX
I failed the July 2016 CBX by 99 points. I didn’t get higher than a 60 on any essay or PT and my MBE score was around the national average, but not the CA average.
I had signed up for Barbri like most people. After wasting so much time watching the video lectures, I didn’t complete more than 50% of the Barbri curriculum. Instead, I ended up investing in MagicSheets (from TLS’ own a male human), Adaptibar, and Baressays.com. I spent the majority of my time just trying to memorize the black letter law. For me, there was just so many issues and rule statements I had to memorize that I would just stare at the MagicSheets for hours and constantly turn to a blank white board and regurgitate that all those issues/rule statements/elements that I had just memorized until I was able to more or less replicate a good part of an outline within a few minutes.
Because much of my focus was on the BLL, I did not devote that much time to essay writing or PTs for that matter. For essays, I would outline them to make sure I spotted all the general issues and then would move on if I was able to. I did this despite the fact that former bar takers had told me that it was very important to do practice essays under timed conditions. I just figured that if I didn’t need to do practice essays in law school and did decent on my law exams after hours of memorizing BLL, then I should be fine. Boy was I completely wrong.
What went wrong in July 2016?
I knew the BLL. This was clear from my MBE score which was only off from the CA average probably by around 5 questions. Couple more study sessions on mortgages might have made up for the deficit. So it wasn’t my MBE score more or less, but my essays/PTs.
Quite frankly, I just didn’t know how to write an essay or a PT that the BAR EXAMINER WANTED. My structure was all messed up. I thought I could wing it for a couple essays like I would wing my law school exams. I had a couple essays and a PT that had to have spotted every single issue but it was organized in a very terrible manner that it seemed unreadable within the 2 minutes bar graders take and so I didn’t get that desired 65.
Also, I completely screwed up the formatting of the exam and had a lot of weird paragraphs where I tried to indent certain paragraphs under subheadings thinking that the exam would print exactly how it looked on my screen but I was wrong and it looked like http://imgur.com/a/ubGix.
February 2017 CBX
I passed the February 2017 CBX. I knew I did better than the first time, but I could not say by how much more. It could have been only 5 points better or 98 points better and I still could have failed. But I passed and I have a better sense of what the graders are looking for (see below).
For this exam, I hired a very expensive private tutor who provided me with his own materials (PM me for his name and contact information). He was a CA bar grader and this was key for me to understand what the CA bar actually wants. His own materials were key for me because not only was it half the size of the Conviser Mini Review and more in depth with certain bar-tested nuances/issues compared to MagicSheets, it was formatted in a way that spoke to my writing weakness. Rule statements were broken down into element subheadings like this
I. Strict Scrutiny
- A. gov’t must show regulation is necessary to serve
B. a compelling government interest
C. narrowly tailored
- 1. not over inclusive or under inclusive
- D. the least restrictive means
- 1. no alternative to make less burdensome
So from the get go I was studying the rule statements in a way that got me thinking already on how I should be formatting the bar essays. The private tutor was also key in breaking down my submitted essays. Also, his simple explanation of how to take PTs changed my entire approach to PTs. I treated it less like a memo/brief to the court and more like an exam (more on that later below). Do you have to hire the tutor to pass? Not necessarily. Maybe. Maybe not. But for me, a private tutor was necessary to help refocus my approach to the exam and see things from a grader’s perspective: What do they want to see?
For the MBE, I used Adaptibar. I did around 1700 questions compared to the first time when I took the bar and did around 700 Adaptibar questions plus around 300 Barbri questions. The MBE was still hard as shit and I definitely feel as though Adaptibar was too easy compared to the actual MBE. I started out in December 2016 scoring around 60% on Adaptibar on average for all subjects but it went to around 73% during January to February. The good thing about Adaptibar is that because it’s real MBE questions, they will test you on the same law nuances that the MBE will test you on vs. Barbri which will test you on every single nuance possible. I’ll get more into depth about the MBE below.
Overall, what was crucial to my passing the bar was having a former CA bar grader critique my essays submitted to him. He broke down how I wrote essays and built me back up. My practice essay scores that he gave me still were not that great, but as long as you are learning from all your mistakes and you work at it then things should fall into place for you. Although Barbri’s graders were decent and could give you a ball park on where you will score, the difference between a 60 and a 65 is extremely difficult for someone to figure out especially if they’ve never sat in on CA bar grading calibration meetings. In fact, Barbri graders are just CA barred attorneys who are grading based off a rubric/model answer given to them. The value in that is the exact same as if you were to critically grade yourself. But if you’ve signed up for Barbri, might as well use all the services that you paid for.
Reflections on my journey
Honestly, maybe I needed to fail that first time. I just wasn’t ready to think like a lawyer or at least intelligently approach the bar exam like the T-1000 from Terminator 2. I was immature. I thought this was another law school exam that was curved. But I’m glad to say I passed even though my finances have taken a major hit (could have been avoided if I had done things differently and passed the first time). I’m just going to chalk it up as an expensive lesson in my life and hope that I never make similar mistakes again. I know a lot of you don’t have that luxury of being able to take a major financial hit without coming close to bankruptcy or what not. This is why I will give you all an overview of how to approach the bar exam based on lessons and tips I’ve acquired from paying too much money for them.
The California Bar Exam
The July 2017 CBX will be different in that the MBE is now 50%, the writing section (essays/PTs) is 50%, and the weight of the PT is drastically reduced now (actual percentage unknown). Just keep this in mind now. In the past, strong essay writers were able to pass with low MBE scores. A lot of people had a strategy of focusing more on practicing essays and PTs and less on MBE questions. I’m not saying that you should do that. I’m also not telling you to spend X amount of time here and Y amount of time there. But know that MBEs do count more this time around and so keep that in mind if you are a retaker.
The best thing to do is to practice essays. 100%. Do a couple within a reasonable amount of time as you are still learning the subject. Take 2 hours for 1 essay if you REALLY need it. But when grading your essays, be EXTREMELY critical of yourself. If you miss one element of an issue, write that down and mark yourself off for that. Leave no stone turned when critically evaluating yourself. You can’t look at an answer, think you got the gist of the rule, and be content with that. You must attempt to be perfect. This doesn’t mean obsess about every wrong rule statement for days. Recognize the imperfection. Memorize what you did wrong. And mentally make sure you don’t do that again next time.
Then, start practicing UNDER TIMED CONDITIONS. Stick to the hour. If you go over by 5 minutes or so, no big deal. But STICK TO THE ONE HOUR. This is to adapt your mind into thinking quickly and typing as fast as possible.
Throughout this whole process, keep in mind that bar graders are paid a couple dollars to grade each essay. Since they make more money by grading more essays, they won't take more than a couple minutes to look at your essay. I mean, what's their incentive to look hard to find reasons to give you a passing score? It just hurts their earning potential. This is why you write essays in a way that gives bar graders what they want to see through a very quick scan of the page. Headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings are key (See below for more detailed explanations).
Essay Advice #1: Outline your essay before you start writing. Remember to IRAC your answer (including subheadings and mini-IRACs for subissues)
Spend 10-15 minutes outlining your essays. This is where you should be spotting every single issue possible in the fact pattern and matching every issue with the specific facts.
What the bar grader is looking for in essays is ISSUE SPOTTING and Analysis. Rule statements are important, but if you have them slightly wrong then they won’t care/notice. Of course if you have rule statements wrong to the point where you may miss a major element that has sub-issues attached to it, then you could be in big trouble there because a missed major element in a rule statement means a missed issue/sub-heading (see below for formatting).
Essay Advice #2: When practicing and writing essays on Examsoft, use Roman Numerals, paragraph breaks, and single tab indents ONLY FOR ISSUE SUB-HEADINGS and not paragraphs (if a sub subheading, then double tab indent...you get the point). Do not use bold font or underline words. It’s a waste of time when trying to do it on a laptop during the exam and sometimes you accidentally underline the tabbed indent without realizing it and it prints that way. Just looks bad.
Unfortunately in law school, I never used examsoft so I didn’t know how it would print out. A clean look won’t give you any points on the exam as the CA bar says, but these graders are human and one bad lunch for them might have them in a bad mood and when they see a terribly formatted essay, they might be automatically harsh on you from the get go. Your goal is to blend in with what everyone is doing so that the graders take a quick glimpse at your essay and give you a 65 without a second thought.
Example: Notice how I only single paragraph indent the issues and not the paragraphs themselves. This will help the issue headings pop out more for the bar grader as they look down the page for all the issues.
I. Procedural Due Process
[Rule statement of PDP]
- A. State Action
State action required for showing of constitutional violations. State action is intentional or reckless acts by government officials.
Here, state action is present because X [action] against Y. X is a government official because of [position] and [position] is traditionally a role for a gov’t official. Furthermore [Action] must have been an intentional act because no reasonable person would have done that. Therefore, state action is present.
State action is present.
- B. Applicability
Procedural due process requires that the government give a person (1) notice and (2) reasonable opportunity to be heard.
- 1. Notice
[Rule statement of notice]
- 2. Reasonable opportunity to be heard
Essay Advice #3: Number your elements in your rule statement, ESPECIALLY if your elements will be your subheadings or sub-subheadings.
See example above. The bar graders LOVE headings. There’s no such thing as too many subheadings. But of course, be reasonable with how you use them. Make sure they make sense to use them when you use them. Numbering your elements in your rules statement helps the elements pop out to the bar grader and makes you look like you know what you're talking about.
Essay Advice #4: Make sure every fact in the fact pattern is used. Highlight/cross out with a pencil every fact that you already used so that you can see what facts are left that you may need to account for.
The fact patterns for the bar have become shorter over the years. Some are extremely short and only 2-3 short paragraphs. Because of the short length, every single fact is crucial. You must mention every fact. When reading the fact pattern initially, ask yourself: Why did the bar examiners include this fact? So pay attention to details in the facts and make sure you incorporate them into your analysis.
Essay Advice #5: When writing your analysis, write as if you are talking to someone who is completely ignorant of the law. Use a lot of “because”s to connect the dots between facts and elements.
Let’s say that there is a law prohibiting advertising on vehicles.
1st amendment prohibits a vague law if a reasonable person would not understand what the law prohibits.
Your analysis SHOULD NOT BE: The law prohibiting advertising on vehicles is vague and not specific as to what vehicles. Therefore, the law is invalid.
Your analysis SHOULD BE: The law prohibiting advertising on vehicles should be void for vague because it is vague as to what constitutes a vehicle. The law itself does not clarify whether vehicles means only motor vehicles or also including vehicles like a bicycle. It is also unclear if an airplane flying with a large banner would fall under this prohibition on vehicle advertising. Furthermore, sometimes these bikes may carry a large sign indicating the name of the company renting out the bike to prevent theft but which could also be considered as advertising. This further points out that the law itself is also vague as to what is considered advertising. Therefore, this law should be void for vagueness.
The bulk of your time on essays should be on the analysis part because this is what the graders are looking at mostly. They’re focusing on issue spotting (priority #1) and good analysis. Don’t spend 10 minutes trying to remember that damn rule statement or trying to write that perfect rule statement. Most of your effort after spotting the issues is in the analysis.
These were a big deal prior to July 2017 because each PT was worth 2 essays and a 65 on a PT could make up for a real fuck up on one essay. Going forward, you won’t have that luxury if you are good on PTs. If you are bad on PTs, this might be good news for you but now you only have 90 minutes to finish a PT.
PT Advice #1: PTs are a jigsaw puzzle. THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO SOLVE IT.
What does it mean there’s only one way? Does that mean if I have one piece in the wrong place that I will fail the PT automatically?
No. What I mean is that to solve the PT, there’s only 1 way to organize the PT. This means you need to find all the rule statements in the library, identify the issues within the rule statements and the issues that the rule statements are expounding, and format your PT in a way where those issues become headings/subheadings/sub-subheadings. Whereas there might be some leeway in how you structure your essay, there is relatively less leeway when it comes to the PT.
PT Advice #2: (See all the above essay advice)
PTs are basically essays and should be written like them. Follow above advice accordingly.
PT Advice #3: Use everything in the library and the case file.
Don’t just simply mention one section from the statute or one rule from a case and think you’ve used that statute/case already. Ask yourself: Why did the bar examiner put this section in the given statute? Why did the bar examiner include this case? For example: If there is an excerpt from a dictionary with TWO definitions, why did the bar examiner include TWO definitions as opposed to only one? This means try to include BOTH definitions from the dictionary in your PT answer. I suspect that because the PTs are now shorter, everything in the case file/library will be crucial and no such red herrings will exist.
PT Advice #4: When in the Analysis phase for IRAC for PTs, ANALOGIZE AND DISTINGUISH the actual cases given in the library. Analogizing and distinguishing the cases given in the library from the client’s case is what will tell bar graders that you are ready to be a lawyer.
PT Advice #5: FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.
If the task memo tells you to write a response letter to the opposition, write an argumentative piece. If the task memo tells you to write a letter to the partner telling him or her the pros and cons, analyze both the pros and cons. Make sure what the task memo tells you to do, you do that.
With CA raising the weight of MBEs to 50%, the MBE is important as ever. I actually don’t have much advice to give on the MBE, but what I can tell you is that you need to review all the MBE questions that you got wrong and dissect them. So do 30 MBE questions. Let’s say you get 10 wrong. Print out the answer explanations for all 30 and write what the issue was. When reviewing questions you got right, that should go relatively quickly because you are able to identify the issue and the correct answer right away.
For questions you got wrong, spot the issue first. Then ask yourself what the bar examiner is testing as it pertains to that issue. Are they testing if you know the element of the rule? Are they testing you a nuance of the rule? Are they testing you how the rule works? Write down what the nuance is or the situation where that rule would apply/not apply and put it in your outline or circle/highlight it if it already is in your outline. And now you’ve learned more of the law and how it works.
If you get many questions wrong, try to figure out why. Are you falling for red herrings? Are you picking answer choices that speak in absolutes (those are typically wrong)? Are you picking answers that have the wrong elements?
MBEs are a process and the more review that you put in to try to right those mental mistakes you make, you’ll be able to perform better on the test day without even knowing it.
Although Adaptibar was extremely helpful both times when I took the bar, I left the MBE wondering if Kaplan’s more complex MBEs might have been useful as well.
Overall study tip (mostly for visual learners)
When making your own leansheets/outlines, you should be formatting them as if you were writing an essay. So I would have one page dedicated to an overarching topic dedicated to Crimes against Property and have the issues organized like below:
To succeed on a charge of extortion, the prosecution must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) taking wrongful possession of (2) personal property of another (3) by threat of future bodily harm or exposure with (4) specific intent to permanently deprive victim of property
- Taking wrongful possession
Personal property of another
By physical threat of future bodily harm
Specific intent to permanently deprive
To succeed on a charge of arson, the prosecution must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) burning of (2) dwelling house of another (3) with malice.
This method was primarily to get my brain already organizing all the elements into sub-headings when trying to memorize BLL so that organization would be intuitive when writing essays. (Note: I indented and underlined the elements so that they look like subheading, but I did not actually underline subheadings on the bar exam as it wastes time).
I hope this long post will help you. I’d be happy to answer any questions. I don’t wish upon even my worst enemy to endure the same stress that I experienced post-July 16 failure and up until that magical pass message yesterday. I also hope that you don’t have to spend the exorbitant amount of money that I’ve had to spend to pass the bar on two tries. I know people out there have had to take the bar exam more than two times. I could have easily been in that same spot, which is why I hope my advice helps you end your journey with success.
Edit: I don't mean to suggest that hiring a private tutor is THE way to go. I've heard stories that private tutors haven't worked out for people. I've heard people taking the most reputable small class bar prep courses and not passing. It ultimately depends on YOU and the work that YOU put in.
In terms of specific bar prep products, some will work for you. Some won't work at all. Unfortunately, you're going to have to figure out what does and doesn't. For example, TLS' a male human's Magicsheets were excellent when I was focusing on BLL and especially trying to cram. But my weakness was essay writing and I needed to conceptualize all the different topics into issues and subissues for essay writing and the Magicsheets did not cater to my specific learning needs. In fact, I had to make some of my own study sheets to cater to those needs.
The reason Barbri is so successful is that it is a cookie-cutter program that has worked for a lot of people. For me during my first go around, the video lectures were a waste of time because I don't do well with their type of active learning which was listening to video lectures and filling in blanks. At a certain point, I was looking to fill in blanks more than actually absorbing the material. So it didn't work for me in terms of learning BLL. It may work for you. But something to keep in mind is that Barbri does not reveal it's passing rates despite calling themselves the established leader. I hope Barbri is transparent in the future, but I doubt it because it easily collects at least $2k from idiots like me.