I love to plan ahead. Predictable structure gives me a sense of peace unachievable even through the best vinyasa practice. But during my first couple years of law school, an important part of why I’m here has been mostly absent from my obsessive planning. For those of us hoping to practice at some point after graduation, we have to pass the bar.
It’s been easy to push thoughts of the notoriously difficult test aside with classes, exams, papers, law review, externships and clinics taking up so much time and mental space. But whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the bar is there, hanging over everything else that we do in law school. Are there things I should have been doing to prepare, even during my 1L year?
This is the first in a series of posts about the bar and how it relates to everyday law school life. This post looks at course selection. Throughout this whole discussion, keep in mind that BC Law selects students who are bright and prepared. Our first-time bar passage rate consistently hovers around 90%. Despite that, it helps to keep in mind that final, final exam when making decisions during your time here.
Course selection is like stepping up to a buffet table. So many options, but only so much room on your plate. Like hitting all the food groups, we have to have a balanced palette of classes combining those that are essential to our future practice area, some that are important for lawyers generally, a few that are required, ones that are just interesting to us, and, yes, others that cover bar topics. First-year classes generally cover topics that pop up on the bar (the Universal Bar Exam, for example, has multiple choice questions on, among other topics, CivPro, ConLaw, Contracts, Crim, Property, and Torts). So you’ve got a foundation after taking the required 1L classes. Another helpful initial step is to figure out what topics are covered on the bar exam you plan to take – don’t take your friend’s word for what’s on the bar (common misconception is that Tax is on the Uniform Bar Exam; it’s not). This site is a good place to start. (http://www.ncbex.org/exams/ube/)
There’s more to consider. You will have a couple months of intense studying before taking the bar (we will discuss bar-prep class options in a future post). But is that enough to cover the topics you may have missed? Or should you take as many bar classes as possible starting with your 2L year? Getting ready to register for classes next week, I asked several professors for their advice about course selection with an eye towards taking and passing the bar. One professor said she never tells students to take a course merely because it is on the bar. But another professor said that although students don’t need to take every class on a bar topic, it can be hard to learn eight subjects in those weeks before the bar when you’re frantically studying 20 hours a day, so you’re doing yourself a favor by taking a few during the second and third years. This is especially so, another professor pointed out, if you don’t test well. You may feel more comfortable refreshing your memory about a topic you already had in class than learning it for the first time–particularly if you don’t feel very comfortable taking (or haven’t done very well on) law school exams. One piece of advice I found especially sound: during your final 3L semester, take bar classes that aren’t related to your practice area and that you don’t want to learn on your own, so that those subjects are fresh in your mind on test day.
Against the background of the bar, professors also emphasized the importance of taking classes central to your planned area of practice. One calls its your “major” in law school. If you’re going to be a tax attorney, you need to take tax, even though it isn’t on the bar. If you fancy yourself a future corporate attorney, mergers & acquisitions will probably be on your course load, even though it isn’t on the bar. If you want to work with children, children’s law and public policy should be on your radar, even though it isn’t on the bar. Keep in mind that some bar classes will also be important to your practice area (Corporate lawyer, corporations. Trial lawyer, evidence). Some advanced classes have prerequisites. During your 2L year, look at what those prerequisites are for the classes in that particular speciality area you want to hit in your 3L year. Also consider taking any required upper-level courses earlier, rather than later (Professional Responsibility, Upper Level Writing, Perspectives).
You should also be thinking about what kind of experiential courses you will take. Over the past decade, law schools have begun to emphasize experiential coursework more, in lieu of mainly podium classes. Clinics and externships provide an opportunity to get on your feet and actually do the work of an attorney. Although clinics do not directly help you prepare for the bar, they are great for preparing for practice. Achieving the right balance for you will be key.
But how do you find that balance? Researchers at Texas Tech Law School looked at their students’ law school lives and how those students fared on the Texas bar. You shouldn’t put too much weight on one study from one school in one state, but their conclusions are illuminating. The researchers first looked at what numbers predict bar passage. College GPA? Not a good predictor. LSAT Score? Yes. Overall law school GPA? Yes. 1L GPA? “Strong” predictor. So it may help to keep those numbers in mind as you’re selecting courses. If your GPA is at or below the median, maybe you want to consider taking more bar classes so that your learning load during bar prep is lower. Next they looked at how law school opportunities are associated with bar scores. Law review participation was associated with a higher bar score. Participating in a clinic, on the other hand, was associated with a lower score. So that’s another thing to keep in mind when you’re deciding how much time you want to dedicate to the classroom versus experiential courses, and deciding whether to dive into the writing competition.
Without much planning, I’ve fortunately found my way into at least one bar class each semester. Apart from 1L though, I’ve taken bar classes (Evidence and Criminal Procedure) that also interest me and will help during my summer job (doing death penalty appeals) and 3L externship (at the Suffolk DA’s office). During my 3L year, I plan on taking bar classes that are not intrinsically interesting to me, for example Trusts & Estates and Corporations, but that I think I’ll struggle to learn on my own in the month or two before the bar. It’s too early to tell you whether my strategy will pan out. In a future post, we’ll talk with a graduate who didn’t pass the bar twice, and discuss his strategy, what he would change, and how it affected his law firm job offer.
I unabashedly have a sweet tooth, and have to be pried away from the dessert table (and Professor McMorrow’s candy bowl). Likewise, with course selection I need to remind myself not to only take classes that I’m interested in because I won’t want to learn too many topics at once in a month or two before the bar. The good news for me at least, is that with two semesters of classes left, I have the opportunity to go up for seconds and thirds.