The Almost Daily Word – The Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Exam Preparation

“Don’t let your sins turn into bad habits.” – St. Teresa of Avila

I’ve been thinking about the California Bar Exam for over 35 years. Scary? – I know!

During that time I’ve been:

– A Bar Exam grader (10 years, about 20,000 answer books)
– A Committee of Bar Examiners member (policy maker, nationwide testing network participant)
– The State Bar Examinations Director (former frightened exam-taker, now in charge – sort of)- A Bar Exam tutor, and
– A law school faculty-member.

During that time, just as most applicants typically are, I’ve been preoccupied with what skills a student must take into the exam to succeed: legal analysis, legal application, organization, perceptive reading, topic heading composition, rule statement memorization, how to write essays, how to write performance tests, MBE strategies … the list seems endless.

Only lately (better late than never?) I’ve begun to reflect on something that has been ubiquitous, but that I noticed only over a long time and only with my “emotional peripheral vision.” Something that I may having been trying to avoid without realizing it. Something that may be none of my business. But something that feels critical to me as a human being struggling to achieve his own successes and deal with his own failures, who wants to share his thoughts with any willing reader.

What self-defeating traits of character do unsuccessful applicants have in common?

Over the next seven entries, bluntly and candidly, but, hopefully, also with the humility of a person who has ignored more than his full share of good advice and often paid the price, I will, indeed, share my thoughts.

I hope you’ll stick around to read them.

The Almost Daily Word – Failing the Bar Exam – And Gratitude

Gratitude is the fairest blossom that blooms from the soul. Harriet Ward Beecher


I’ll be straight with you. Feeling and expressing gratitude on a daily basis are practices that I came too relatively late in life. Temperamentally, I suppose you could say that I’ve always been much more of a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy” – a worrier.


This may seem ironic to no one other than me, but what turned me into a proudly and overtly grateful person was a series of personal disasters and failures that could very well have done me in. They didn’t though, and although I can claim a little credit for my survival, most of what saved me came by way of gifts from others. I believe this because there’s just no way else to explain how my recovery – my salvation if that’s how you’d prefer to put it – was so stunning and beautiful. By no means was it a straight line from darkness and discouragement to joy and a sense of fulfillment, but the blessings just kept on coming, whether I deserved them or not.


After much reflection, I’ve concluded that these gifts: among them my health, my sons, the moon coming up, the support of friends, the comfort of a quiet home, the satisfaction of working hard on things I love, working out, hiking in the hills, even folding laundry, have always been there for me. I just never noticed them enough, or never noticed them at all.


There are understandable reasons – my preoccupations mainly: with making a living and raising children, with wanting to have dumb fun (and plenty of it), with wanting to be (or, rather, to be seen as) “important.” Still, it was also very much the case, that even though I knew better, I simply didn’t look up or around enough. I didn’t pause for a deep breath enough. My field of vision was way way too narrow, and I missed many signs that, even with its ups and downs, life is good, miraculously good.


When I became the State Bar Exam Director, July examination results went out on the Friday following Thanksgiving. This was not popular, to put it mildly. Applicants complained that the holiday was an agony of not knowing. Their complaints resulted in the release date being moved up by a week, and guess what. Unsuccessful applicants, who often comprise 40% or more of those receiving State Bar letters, complained that the new release date ruined their holiday. Perhaps my reactions at the time were harsh and more than a little glib. I figured that failing the Bar just sucked, no matter when you got the news, and that that fact was the bottom line.


This Thanksgiving failing the Bar still sucks, and no one, most of all me, should underestimate the effort it takes to get through defeats like this. Nonetheless, the “glass-half-full” part of me has these thoughts.


When we take time to look above, beyond, under and around our set backs to the rest of our private universes, the view can often be pretty good. If, using tomorrow as an example, we are healthy and safe, if we are with loved ones, if there’s football, and the food and wine are tasty, we are well off – better than well off. Try to dispute that.


So .. to all, and especially to those who will soon be working their ways back into Bar Exam preparation, I wish you a very very happy Thanksgiving. Please don’t forget to give thanks, early and often. Put your worries aside. And, if it comes to whether you should have seconds on dessert or another glass of wine, go for it!

The Almost Daily Word of Wisdom – Why I Blog

“Your blog is an unedited version of yourself.” – Unattributed
I am someone who is relatively private and intensely self-conscious. It therefore surprises me that for the past six years, since I started tutoring, I have been eager to share my thoughts and feelings publicly about a wide range of topics – many unconventional and/or personal – about preparing for the Bar Exam. That dichotomy seems to be worth reflecting on every so often. It’s become important to me that people interested in me in my tutor hat know something about what makes me tick.
There are many reasons beyond the obvious, why the Bar Exam is important. It requires an immense amount of work. Preparing for it and taking it are gut wrenching. (I remember nearly everything about the three days that I took it, over 40 years later.) Passing it can feel like summiting Everest, flunking it can be about as bad a feeling as there is. There are no guaranties of passing, and that alone – that uncertain outcome – pumps the stress level up into redline territory. Most folks undertake this struggle in a well-intentioned spotlight cast on them by their friends and family, by law professors and future employers –not always easy. If only one could hide out until his or her name is on the pass list.
So, for starters, I feel a tremendous amount of respect for, and kinship with, everyone who sits for the Exam. It isn’t an overstatement to say that they are heroes to me in a way; embarking upon uncharted waters with a critical destination in mind and no guaranties. After over 35 years affiliated with the Bar Exam – as a grader, as a Committee of Bar Examiners member and as the State Bar Exam Director, as a tutor and as a law professor – I feel a responsibility to be involved in the conversation about how to prepare for it.
Another thing that has surprised me is that I have opinions about the Exam and how to get ready for it: lots of strongly held ones that involve not only how to study but how to BE while one studies. Those opinions may not be for everyone. That’s fine. But they are sincere, and they come from a long life of doing many different things in addition to being a State Bar bureaucrat. Much of what I most believe in comes from my mistakes and failures in life. Aeschylus, the Greek poet said: “Pain falls drop by drop upon the heart until one acquires wisdom through the awful grace of God.” I have become wise, I hope, and I’m eager to volunteer that wisdom to anyone who wants to listen. My failures have also given me a sympathy for others who are struggling in a noble cause –  a sympathy that I never had when I was a younger person and thought I knew everything.
I am eager to work “up-close and personal,” as they say, with my students. I want to help them feel safe and confident so that they can face up to and discuss their weaknesses and their fears; so they can grow; and so they can walk with genuine confidence into their exams, proud that they’ve done everything they could to prepare, and ready to conquer the challenge. To be perfectly honest, I’m doing it as much for me as for them. It fulfills me. Seeing them grow in their studies feeds me. Seeing them succeed makes me more than a little insane with happiness.
So why do I blog? I guess one way to think of it is that when I blog I’m extending my hand to you. I want you to know that I’m here and to encourage you to consider my thoughts and feelings about your success. To remind you that passing the Bar is a huge challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and that you are capable of doing it. I want you to know that being invited to help you and support you would be a privilege, and a pleasure.

The Almost Daily Word – Should You Appeal Your Unsuccessful Bar Result

Unsuccessful applicants may seek reconsideration of their grades based on arithmetic or transpositional errors in the compiling of their scores or a departure from established procedures. They may not challenge the evaluation of their answers, although many attempt to do so.” October 26, 2009 Memorandum to California State Bar Board of Governors
When I was the Examinations Director for the State Bar I received hundreds of letters from unsuccessful applicants requesting reconsideration of their grades.
Most struck me as the applicants’ understandable efforts to “cover their bases;” to assure that their answers were properly graded and the results added up correctly. The Examinations Department duly checked the results. Not a single “arithmetic or transpositional” error was discovered while I was Director.
Many were challenges to the grader judgments. Often they enclosed one of more essay or performance test answers, “regraded” by a favorite professor or tutor, in support of their requests. Since these were “challenge[s] to the evaluation of their answers” I did not have authority to consider them. I agreed with this limitation. I believed in the integrity of the bar examination grading system. I believed in the expertise and professional integrity of the graders, many of whom I’d graded with and known for years.
However, I always felt that one very narrow ground for reconsideration was underutilized and not fully understood by applicants. “Departure from established procedures” is applicable most often to a disturbance at the applicant’s test site. Examples are power failures and excessive noise from inside or outside of the test site. When applicants report these incidents and seek reconsideration, the Committee of Bar Examiners’ pays attention. It often requests that its psychometrician conduct a statistical study to determine whether the request has merit. These sorts of studies rarely come down on the applicant’s side. However, one thing that the Committee does not do, is investigate whether, notwithstanding the outcome of the study, the applicant suffered a unique, individual disadvantage. I always thought that a properly documented request on this ground could succeed.
Test site incidents are rare, but they do happen. If you believe that your grades suffered as a result, speak up.