The Summer I Knew Nothing—Studying for the Bar Exam

law-school casebooksThirty-five years ago, in the summer of 1979, my husband and I moved to Kansas City to study for the bar exam. I’ve written before about our trip from California to Missouri, but I’ve tried to block the bar exam and the preparation for taking it from my memory. Still, that summer was a rite of passage, and deserves recognition as such.

Studying for the bar exam is both tedious and terrifying. My husband and I spent several hours each day at the law library at the University of Missouri—Kansas City, reviewing notes from our law school classes, reading through hornbooks (summaries of various legal topics), and trying to reduce entire shelves of casebooks into a few principles we could memorize.

And then we spent more hours each evening in a bar review course, where a paid lecturer tried to cram more information into our heads and the heads of our fellow sufferers, as well as providing tips on how to take the test.

All of this was designed to cram into six weeks everything we had learned in three years of law school courses—and then some, because no law student takes everything in law school that is covered on the bar exam.

The bar exam in Missouri at the time consisted of some fifteen legal subjects (contracts, torts, trusts and estates, and the like), on which we would have to answer arcane essay questions over a two-day period. In addition, there was the multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam that took another half day. Like most multiple-choice tests, the MBE gave a list of options that all appeared almost equally valid.

I went through the summer alternating between confidence and despair. On the one hand, the pass rate on the bar exam in Missouri at the time was around 80%. Surely I could do better than 20% of the people taking the test. I’d gone to Stanford Law School, after all, I smugly thought.

On the other hand, I’d never taken Missouri Civil Procedure (Stanford barely taught California Civil Procedure), which had its idiosyncrasies, and everyone knew that the bar examiners loved to catch examinees on the minutiae.

On a third hand, I talked to a bar examiner who was a partner at the law firm where my husband was going to work. He said he gave 70% credit if the test-taker managed to write a credible paragraph on a question. I didn’t particularly like this guy, but I was willing to take him as an oracle on this point.

On yet another hand (my husband was taking the test, too, so we had four hands between us), half-way through the review program, I took a practice Multistate Bar Exam, and failed it miserably. My complacency vanished, I decided I knew nothing about the law, and I redoubled my studying.

And I had to worry not only about myself, but about my husband. What if only one of us passed? We wouldn’t starve if at least one of us could work, but how dreadful for the other spouse! Could this marriage be saved?

It was a miserable summer, culminating in the three dreadful days in late July of the exam.

But both my husband and I passed. We found out we passed on Labor Day weekend of 1979, and started our legal careers the day after Labor Day.

Some thirty-something years later, our daughter studied for and took the Washington state bar exam. I think her exam was three-and-a-half days, and the subjects covered were a little different, but the experience was generally the same. Except she typed her answers on a laptop. (There were no laptops in 1979. Nor even any desktop PCs.)

Her comment after taking the exam, “Well, it’s over.” She wouldn’t talk about it further. “I’ll never do that again.”

Thank goodness, she passed her bar exam also. Let’s hope she never does have to do it again.

What has been a grueling time in your life?


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  1. Your story was making my palms sweat, Theresa. I’m so happy you and your husband and now your daughter all passed the bar exam. I’ve always suffered from major test anxiety.
    A grueling time for me was 3 years ago when my company was shut down by our corporate office. It was a stressful time, but I made it through and ended up in a better place.

  2. Ugh, it sounds horrible. I remember my husband studying for the LSAT (nasty business that). I studied like that for the GRE and also for my PhD defiency exams, my French exam for the PhD, and for my dissertation defense. Oh, and my MA thesis defense. Very intense, but at least the subjects were fun, unlike law.

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