As their last semesters approach, several 3L students have come into my office with the same question: “During my last semesters, should I take as many courses as possible that will appear on the bar exam?”
I admit that the question itself caught me off guard. When I was in law school, it never crossed my mind. I followed the same path that I saw most of my classmates follow: I took classes in law school on subjects that I found interesting or from professors I liked, and then I paid for a bar preparation course through which I crammed new subjects into my head in the weeks running up to the bar examination with no expectation that I would necessarily retain or use what I learned in the course in my career. The “cram, test, and forget” strategy worked for me.
But it may not be right for everyone. So, how do you decide what strategy is right for you?
Let me start with this: I don’t think this is an either-or proposition. You should decide whether you need to take bar-related classes in law school in addition to taking a post-graduation bar preparation course. If you can afford them, the preparation courses are invaluable. I don’t think I would have passed the bar examination if I had only taken the classes in law school covered by the bar examination.
Though not adopted yet in every state, the topics tested in the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), a two-day bar examination coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, are a good barometer for most of the topics tested throughout the United States. The topics include federal civil procedure, conflicts of laws, constitutional law, contracts, business organizations, the Uniform Commercial Code, family law, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, torts, and trusts and estates. Beginning with the July 2016 bar examination, Massachusetts will also be testing aspiring lawyers on “access to justice,” with questions covering landlord-tenant law, foreclosures, domestic abuse, guardianship, consumer protection, advance health care directives, due process as it relates to the right to counsel and limited assistance representation.
An overwhelming list? Absolutely. You will notice though that the vast majority of the bar topics cover subjects taught in required law school courses. By the fall of your 3L year, therefore, you would have at least been exposed to most of the bar topics. But as your last semester inches forward, it is understandable that anxiety about the bar likewise creeps in.
Whether to fill your last semester with bar-related courses depends in large part on the type of student or learner you are. If you are a student who would really benefit from a foundational course in let’s say family law or trusts and estates prior to studying for the bar, then you should consider taking such a course.
What do I mean by “benefit”? If you retain knowledge from law school courses really well and will therefore enter your bar examination preparation course with less anxiety and a solid understanding of the overall topic, which in turn makes the process of studying for the bar easier (i.e. you can breeze through that topic by simply “refreshing” your knowledge rather than “relearning” or “learning for the first time”), then taking a law school course may be the right choice for you.
If however you are a student or learner who is (i) comfortable learning new topics for the first time and are able to retain such information for the examination, and/or (ii) regardless of whether you take a law school course, needs to “relearn” or more deeply “refresh” your recollection of the material in preparation for the examination, then it is worth considering a different approach. This is your opportunity to take courses that are of interest to you, regardless of your future practice.
Also, as we have a unique professional responsibility as lawyers to enhance the lives of those in need, even if you are not pursuing a career as a public interest lawyer, hopefully, you plan to engage in pro bono service. Taking certain courses therefore, such as bankruptcy, child advocacy, civil and human rights, consumer protection, criminal justice, education law, immigration, mediation, poverty law and veterans law, just to name a few, may help you further your service ethic.
Moreover, now is your opportunity to develop the requisite skills to be as practice-ready or as marketable as possible upon graduation. Perhaps you are destined to be a commercial litigator. Consider taking a business organizations or a contracts practicum course as they will help you better understand the corporate structures of your clients and the contract development process before circumstances evolve leading to litigation. Conversely, if you aspire to be a transactional lawyer, consider taking a litigation-based course to better appreciate the importance of protecting your clients’ interests through your negotiation.
Consider also pursuing an externship or taking a clinic through which you can develop core skills in client engagement, advice and counsel, practice management, billing, oral and written advocacy, courtroom procedure, negotiation, contract development, and more.
Regardless of your approach to your course schedule, you should plan to treat studying for the bar exam like a job. It is your ticket into the profession and attempting to skirt by with little studying will more than likely result in having to take it again — an eventuality I highly recommend that you avoid.
So enjoy your last year of law school, and buckle down in June and July (or January and February). Study hard, and we will look forward to welcoming you to our ranks soon.