Tales from the MPRE

Because my MPRE score expired, I had to retake it.  After spending a couple hours with students about to begin their third year of law school, I have some observations:
  • The MPRE is a weird exam.  It is easy in that you can normally eliminate two wrong answers quickly, leaving you a 50/50 (or at worst a 30/30/30) guess.  Often the remaining answers both seem right (impossibly so and even if you diligently studied for the exam).  So it's easy to narrow down the answers and hard to select the right one.  Additionally, the score range is 50 to 150 and yet I don't think any state requires higher than an 80 (approximately a 33%) to pass.
  • The weeks leading up to my final year of law school were some of the best ever:  I was coming off of a great summer job; felt good about my prospects for an even better job after graduation; and frankly I bought into the "third year of law school is a waste" school of thought.  Enjoy it, but realize that it will not last.
  • Lawyers retaking the MPRE should probably avoid the August administration.  Although my sample size was small, it appeared that the majority of the other examinees were rising 3Ls.  Frankly, the students were annoying (see prior point).  Less than two weeks after taking the bar examination, hearing law students complain about how unfair that they have to sit for two hours without a water bottle at their desks.  Or to watch them bring in their PMBR or BARBRI review books for the MPRE and study there, in the examination room, very shortly before the examination begins.  It's clear (at least at my administration of the exam) that students do not appreciate what actually is in store for them in less than a year.
  • Following up on the previous point:  the MPRE is similar in several ways to the MBE portion of the bar exam.  You do yourself an injustice when you treat it nonchalantly.

Free LSAT Advice

Prior to and during law school, I was an LSAT tutor both on my own and (at a different time) for one of the large test preparation companies.  I'm not particularly fond of the LSAT.  Rather, I couldn't believe that my performance on a single test that was learnable could erase years of undergraduate work.  I figured out a strategy that significantly improved my score (almost 25 points) and wanted to help others do the same.  (An important caveat: I'm naturally good at standardized tests and my father introduced me to logic puzzles in the 6th grade, so I had an advantage.  But I still gained almost 25 points on my LSAT score.  And that improvement was all the difference in getting attention from the schools I was interested in.  Not everyone can gain 25 points, but I think it's easier than the LSAT administrators would like you to believe.)
As a lawyer, my LSAT score is almost meaningless.  Nevertheless, while studying for the MPRE recently, I remembered a technique that I'd used to success in preparing for the LSAT.  Whenever I did practice questions - particularly logical reasoning - I would make my own answer sheet with five columns (Question Number, A, B, C, and D).  For each answer choice, I'd try and mark a check mark if I thought it was the correct answer, an "X" if I was SURE that it was an incorrect answer, and an "/" if I thought it was probably wrong but wasn't confident.  Then, when I was checking my answers, I'd pay particular attention to the questions where I was sure that the correct answer was wrong.  In those instances, I was clearly not thinking along the same lines as the test's authors.  I would sit there and go over the question again and again until I finally understood why the given answer was correct.  Sometimes it wasn't easy:  a couple of times I swore that the administrators must have made a mistake or whomever transposed the answer for my book.  Nevertheless, without fail I would eventually see the light.  I truly believe that this simple, but time-intensive process is what made the difference.  If you are serious about improving your LSAT score, I would highly recommend trying this strategy.
Another quick tip:  if you're the kind of person who needs to cram one last set of questions in the day of an exam or if you just like warming up your mind, an easy way to do it on LSAT day is to find a critical analysis (i.e., logic game) set of questions that were really easy for you and do them the day of the test.  It was a real confidence booster for me to know that the first logic game I'd seen that day, I'd aced.  Sure, it didn't count.  But it got my mind working and feeling confident.

Some Early Reactions to the Bar Exam

Many of the other people who took the bar exam with me last week are now on well-deserved vacations and have an entire month of relaxation before beginning work again.  I, on the other hand, am back working.  The joys of being a practicing attorney.
I don't know whether I passed or not, though I feel much less confident about it this time than my previous, successful, attempt several years ago.  Looking back (and ahead to planning for a potential retake in February) I have a couple of observations:
  1. Work gets in the way.  I worked very long hours every single day for 21 days straight prior to taking the bar.  Although I wouldn't attribute a nefarious intention to my sudden, insane schedule, I can't think of a worse way to spend the month leading up to the exam.
  2. Client letters of recommendation can be a not-so-subtle way to restrict young lawyers from admission by examination.  If a state offers both admission by examination and by reciprocity for lawyers in other jurisdictions, they can have separate applications.  Requiring letters from two clients who are willing to speak regarding a young attorney's legal representation is unlikely to lead to relevant information because most attorneys who do not seek admission by reciprocity (where available) lack sufficient legal experience (i.e., they have not practiced law for five of the past seven years).  They are unlikely to have much, if any, direct client contact.  Moreover, they are unlikely to have their own clients.  As a result, such a requirement requires a young attorney to (a) tell the partners with whom they work that they are taking another state's bar exam (a prospect that will either discourage potential applicants or provide employers who are inclined to protect their investments with notice such that they can pile up a significant amount of work on an individual at a time that would make it very difficult for them to pass; and (b) require that those partners tell their clients that an associate is considering taking another state's exam (a daunting prospect because many people believe that if you [and your peers] are happy at your current position, you would not take another bar exam.)  In short, there is a high probability that it will discourage applicants and make the test more difficult for examinees and the likelihood of acquiring materially useful information is relatively low.
  3. Studying early and often is the key for experienced attorneys for states with state-specific essays.  In some states, the bar exam is a combination of multistate materials (the MBE, the MEE, or the MPT) and broad essays about either a basic subject (i.e., contracts, constitutional law, etc.) or a single, detailed essay about a topic that all lawyers should be familiar (i.e., the state's civil procedure rules).  In other states, a substantial portion of your score is based on state-specific essays on less common subjects (wills, trusts, mortgages, etc.).  In such jurisdictions, a substantial amount of studying is required in order to give yourself a fair chance of passing.  (You could pass with minimal studying but your chance of passing doesn't make passage more probable than not unless you study the state's law in detail).  But the rub for experienced attorneys is that you will invariably have come across at least one issue in the state-specific portion of the exam that you have researched the living daylights out of in your current state.  Murphy's Law dictates that the new state's law will be substantially different once you get past the broad principles.  So you have to study enough to force your old state's law from your mind when you see a question that begs for it to come to the surface.  This is difficult.
  4. Finally, don't let the stress get to you too much.  You'll have your "esq." no matter what happens.  But, on the other hand, do not allow your colleagues' success in taking a second bar exam to let you overinflate your own prospects.  And just because you passed it once does not mean you will be similarly lucky the second time through.  Be honest about what portions of the original exam you probably did the best on (to the extent you don't know for sure) and study accordingly.

With all of that said, I'm starting to study for the February 2009 bar exam.  For the next month, I'm going to take it easy and do 20 MBE questions a week and read a subpoint from a state-specific outlines.  I know that it's early and there's a danger of overload.  But, I didn't study for most of the days leading up to the July 2008 exam, so I can't claim that I'm worn out.  Moreover, if I preserve what is in my head now and can add anything to it over the next six months, I will be in tremendous shape to finally get this out of the way in February at the very latest.  If I find out that I passed the July exam, then all is not wasted:  I am a lawyer after all and should know most of the materials in the BARBRI outlines anyway.

Campbell Law & Teaching the Test

For the unacquainted, Campbell Law (officially, the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law) is perhaps the most well-respected law school you've never heard of. In North Carolina, Campbell is known for producing high-quality attorneys. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with several and found them equal to their alma mater's sterling reputation.

Campbell Law is also known for its graduates' tremendous success rate on the North Carolina bar exam: 97% passed in 2006 and 95% in 2007. It's one of the many reasons "Why Campbell." Campbell is not cheap ($26,800 per year) and job prospects immediately after graduation are not spectacular (62.6% employed at graduation). [Source: US News & World Report] But, its graduates are technically sound and almost always pass the bar exam.

Campbell attracts my attention because of an article published last September about the school's tremendous passage rate. According to the article, Campbell graduates are required to take courses in all of the subjects tested by the North Carolina bar exam. Nevertheless, the school dismissed the idea that it might be a three-year, $81,000 bar preparation course that merely "teaches for the test."

My reactions:
  1. Protestations aside, Campbell probably does teach for the test. Why wouldn't they? Campbell is largely lost in the shuffle of U.S. law schools and does not place highly in the annual rankings. Its students pay a pretty penny in tuition and many do not have a job at graduation. So why not teach for the test? If you aren't either (a) at a top-14 law school or (b) at the very top of your class at a lower-ranked school, all that you can truly ask of your school is that it prepare you for the practice of law. You can't practice law if you don't pass the bar examination, so teaching for the test is the school's duty to its students. I would be disappointed if Campbell didn't teach for the test.
  2. Why the negative inference? The bar examination is supposed to test your broad knowledge of the law and legal reasoning. I like to think of its scope as testing those topics about which any lawyer is likely to be asked at least once in their careers; if not by clients, then by friends or family. In other words, it tests the things that lawyers should know. At my law school, the required curriculum included all of the multistate topics but anything beyond that was left to the students' discretion. This is perfectly fine if you are positive about what kind of law you're interested and employable in. But probably not the best course for students who should keep their options open for as long as possible. You don't want prospective students to think you're the vastly more expensive equivalent of BARBRI. But if the bar examination truly tests your general legal competency and your students are best served by developing that general competency, I see no reason to shy away from admitting that you teach the test. You can teach the test "and more." But be honest: you're teaching the test. And it is ok.

Self Reflection

I am currently reading Major Dick Winters' excellent book, Beyond Band of Brothers.  Like many people, I am a huge fan of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and am grateful that the experiences of the men of Easy Company have been preserved for posterity.  Major Winters and Colonel Cole Kingseed took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps left by the miniseries and Stephen Ambrose book.  It's already in paperback and worthwhile reading.
I'm still reading the book, but came across an interesting leadership maxim of Major Winters' that bears frequent repeating: "Take a moment of self reflection.  Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best."  If a mirror is too honest, perhaps you can try a modified version of Benjamin Franklin's daily self assessment, in which he noted in his journal what progress he had made on developing the various traits he considered desirable.

Starting Over

I recently took my second bar exam, exactly two years after passing my first. Being surrounded by 400 recent law school graduates was a strange experience.

Your first time, you're scared. It's understandable. There are urban legends of law clerks who were fired because they failed the first time they took the bar or who couldn't get over the stigma. You believe them because, as a law student, you've probably avoided epic failures in life and so your perception of failure's risks is skewed. In reality, many people fail a bar examination and yet go on to pass and become wonderful attorneys.

Your second time, you have a better sense of perspective. You probably know people who have failed. You've already passed once. As long as you don't cheat, you will still be an attorney no matter how you do on the exam. The actual process of law has made you better appreciate its nuances, though you're further removed from the actual study of Constitutional Law, Torts, Criminal Law, Contracts/Sales, or Real Property. But after learning them once, it is easier to relearn them.

The surprising effect of taking a second bar exam, at least for me, was that it inspired introspection about the kind of lawyer that I am and the lawyer that I was so excited to become. One of the first victims of my introspection was this blog. The prior incarnation was unfocused and of limited value, except to the surprisingly large number of people confused by the true meaning of ejusdem generis. I began writing it prematurely and it was unacceptably lacking in quality. So I deleted it and am starting over. It's not a clean slate, but it's close.