When asked as to why they are keen on pursuing an LL.M. abroad, a large percentage of Indian law graduates mention foreign Bar qualification as one of the most pressing reasons. And within this group, as far as those attending US law schools are concerned, the two most popular Bar exams are those of New York and California.
While you can find information on the NY Bar here, this column authored by Hrideja Shah discusses the hows and whys of passing the California Bar Exam. Hrideja is a 2017 graduate of Jindal Global Law School, and went on to pursue an LL.M. at Berkeley Law right after her undergraduate course. In 2019, she passed the California Bar Exam. In this column, Hrideja breaks down the preparation involved, stresses on the importance of practice, and also shares some words of advice on how to stay mentally strong.
Taking the California Bar exam has been the most difficult aspects of my life. Since I wanted to work in California after graduating, I decided to register and apply for the California Bar exam. After graduating from UC Berkeley, I started my preparation for the bar exam.
As per the State Bar of California, the California bar exam is taken twice each year, in February and July. The examination covers subjects such as Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Community Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Real Property, Remedies, Torts, Trusts and Wills and Succession, Agency and Partnership. The total number of subjects including California law subjects and Federal subjects are overall 18.
The exam is given over two days and consists of the following:
- The first day consists of answering five essay questions (hypotheticals) and a performance test [PT] (Writing a memo, legal brief etc.). The time allocated is one hour per essay and one & half hours for the performance test. The written portion of the examination (essay questions and Performance Test) is administered on the first day, with three essay questions given in the morning session and two essay questions plus the Performance Test given in the afternoon session.
- The second day is MBE’s (Multistate Bar Examination) For MBE’s, you have a total of six hours to answer 200 questions (100 questions in morning & 100 in afternoon).
- The performance test includes two files to be analyzed which were 1) the task file (task explained with any additional material required) 2) the library file (material to be read and analyzed before writing the memo).
When I learned about the format, I thought to myself, this shouldn’t be as difficult as people say it to be.
With this format in mind, I began my preparation for the exam. There are a lot of bar preparation providers in the market, however, I recommend using either Barbri, Themis or Kaplan. A total of 18 subjects to be learnt by heart within 1.5 months as the exam was closed book. Every two days, I was learning a new subject, attempting questions in both MBE and Essay along with practicing PT’s.
It wasn’t an easy task even and I was studying for 10 to 12 hours a day. It just wasn’t enough. I fared well with essays and performance tests during preparation, however, despite constant practice, my MBE scores remained average. Each subject had multiple rules of law which had to learnt by heart and in order to pass each essay, you would be required to state the entire rule of law as it was or in a similar language with analysis.
The bar prep courses equip you with video lectures as well as online practice material and give you a deadline for each course so that you are able to finish off your entire course on time. Apart from video lectures, you also receive a set of 5 to 7 books that include full & mini outlines on California subjects, federal subjects and a book for MBE’s.
My one recommendation to anyone studying for the bar, do not look at the full outlines because they are bound to make you feel anxious & scared.
After studying & practicing for 1.5 months, exam day arrived. On the first day, we were required to be at the exam hall by 7 -7:30 am, since every student had to be admitted in the exam hall after proper checking and instructions. Before entering the exam hall, I couldn’t stop revising because it was just too much to remember and every subject that I didn’t go through, made me nervous.
We received the first half of our exam, and with that the race began. I call it a race is because unless you knew how to type like Bruce Almighty (after he receives those powers from god), it was impossible to cover all the minor and major issues of the essay, and stating the exact rule of law within one hour.
I was barely keeping up, but I managed to finish all portions of the exam on the first day. By the time we left the exam hall, it was around 6:15 pm. We had essentially been taking an exam for over 10 hours! Exhausted after giving the exam, I could barely manage to revise for the MBE portion to be given on second day.
On the second day, I reached around 8 am. MBE’s are multiple choice questions that are based on analyzing the rule of law. The screenshot below gives a fair representation of the kind of questions asked, options and the answer expected.
For each such question, you have approximately 1 to 1.5 minutes to respond which keeps you on your toes. Again, by the end of the day, all my energy had been drained off and I honestly did not want to go through that entire process again.
The exam results came out a day or two before Thanksgiving and I was extremely nervous. When I looked at my result, I had failed in my first attempt and I remember just crying because I did not expect failing. I had never failed in my life before taking this exam. Throughout law school, I always held a place in the top 15.
I spoke to my dad and he said, it’s one of the toughest bar exams in the world for a reason, and that I should give it another try and work harder. So, I embarked on the journey once again. In order to pass the California bar exam, I needed 1440 in Essays and PT and 1440 in MBE’s as well. The score would be added and divided by 2. If the average score turned to be 1440 overall, I would pass.
So, for example, if I scored 1490 in my essays portion and 1350 in my MBE’s, I wouldn’t pass because the average of the two scores did not come up to 1440 overall.
I decided to change the way I studied this time. Instead of studying for only 10-12 hours, I was studying for 16-18 hours a day. I knew my weak points. It wasn’t that I didn’t know my material. My problem was typing out the answers with every major and minor issue analyzed within that one hour and constantly analyzing every MBE question in a minute. I was taking too much time.
For Essays, I recommend issue spotting as many essays as you can and outlining by writing down the exact rule of law. This would help in memorizing.
My MBE scores were average as well. So, after studying nonstop the entire course in 3 weeks, I started practicing about 100 MBE questions a day along with 2 essays and 1 PT in every two days. As weeks went by, I started practicing 200 MBE questions a day along with revising every rule of law. I had practiced over 2,800 MBE questions and for every wrong MBE question, I wrote down the rule of law in my notes and how it can be interpreted based on the question. My recommendation for MBE’s is to keep a track of every wrong answer, write down the rule of law in your notes. Review all questions practiced over the weekend. Probably being Indian helped me because we have been taught how to memorize during school and those memories of mugging up helped me remember every rule for all 18 subjects.
After that preparation, it was time to give the exam once again. I remember being extremely nervous because I had put in a lot of effort. The July 2019 exam was one of the lengthiest exams ever seen because each question had at least 6 to 10 issues to analyzed within one hour. However, due to constant practice, I had managed to learn how to think, write and analyze at the same time at a higher writing speed. I am surprised I didn’t break my laptop keyboard that day!
Like clockwork, the result was released yet again a few days before Thanksgiving. I was nervous, had panic attacks and couldn’t get myself to open the exam result. I was terrified of finding out that I had failed once again. So, I asked my best friend to check my result. I gave him my log in details. While being on call with him, I was howling because I didn’t want to know my result. I didn’t want to go through taking the exam again, the preparation cause at the end, it mentally exhausts you. Luckily, my best friend started shouting on the phone, “You’ve passed the exam!”. I didn’t believe him and gathered courage to check myself. I couldn’t believe that all my hard work had paid off. I had finally passed the toughest bar exam in the world and was a dual qualified lawyer!
For anyone taking the exam, take breaks and don’t let the exam fear get to you. I was too late to realize that. My mental health had definitely deteriorated. I had become a lot more anxious, started getting panic attacks and was afraid of failure,
However, remember to give it your 10000%. At any given point, if you’re exhausted studying, take a break and watch your favorite TV show. It’s alright if you fail but you just have to give even more effort the next time. At times, it also depends on the grader you receive. Some graders are strict and do not give enough marks whereas some give marks if you have analyzed every major and minor issue in an outline manner as well.
And finally, to avoid panic attacks like I did, remember that it’s just an exam and with the right approach and practice, you can pass it. Some require just 8 hours of prep while some require 16 hours, however that poses no questions on your ability to pass the exam.