The California Bar Exam

With February coming up soon, and the various State’s bar exams at the end of the month, I thought I’d share a little bit about my bar exam experience. Not really advice, just the experience of going though it. You’ll get plenty of advice. My only pieces of advice, leave the books at home, don’t study the nights before the exam, and get plenty of sleep at a comfortable hotel. Ta-da! That’s it.

I took the California Bar Exam in the mid 2000’s. I did the bar-bri stuff, I did PMBR, and I failed it by 2 miserable points. Yep, one MBE question separated me from passing on the first try. I did pass on the second try, and with huge scores on the next two states I took the bar in. (I’ve got three under my belt.) But as was the case when I was in law school, I am a poster child for disasters, and I’m pretty sure that I missed the lousy thing by 2 whole points because of bad luck, not a lack of preparation.

You will meet a lot of people who missed passing by 2 or 5 points. If someone casually brushes off the exam with a “yeah, I missed it by 5 points.” They failed it by more than that. If it eats at them every day of their life, even after they passed it, and still curse those lousy 2 f**king points that could have kept me re-taking the damn thing. That’s a person who actually missed passing by 2 to 5 points. Or as I like to say, one MBE question away from a pass.

I harp on the MBE thing, because it’s the part that bothered me the most when I took the bar exam, the disaster exam. My bad luck started when I hopped a plane immediately after my commencement from a Midwestern law school, so I could be in LA in time for PMBR that Monday. My bags got lost, and the TSA agent at the airport dropped my laptop. At the time, it appeared to be ok. But two weeks before the exam that I was supposed to take on a laptop, and had practiced taking on a laptop, mine died.

Frantic calls were made to the California Bar, and to examsoft, who made the little exam app you used in law school, and also for the bar. The friday before the exam, I finally was able to work everything out to take on the laptop again. But it cost me time that I could have been studying, and added stress that I really didn’t need. Stress that was already multiplied by a family emergency back in the midwest, and the mere fact that the bar was the following week.

I went into the bar exam, in Ontario, CA on day 1, having done everything I was supposed to have done. I put in the hours, I went to all the classes, I had no life for 8 weeks leading up to that moment. The day of the exam, I arrived to find a film crew interviewing students for a documentary. My first question from the film crew, “Is there any added pressure that comes from knowing the California Bar Exam is the hardest bar exam in the world?” Well thanks a lot asshole, there’s pressure now! It went downhill from there. “Have they told you anything about the wildfires?” I didn’t know a thing about the wildfires.

If you take the bar exam in Ontario, CA, it’s held at a convention center that is located between a highway and an airport. There are also train tracks nearby. The noise, a bit of a problem. But on the other side of the highway, are the mountains, and a large plain, where apparently a fire had been burning for a few weeks. You could smell it in the air, and there was some smoke, but it didn’t seem that close, until you were asked about it.

When we got into the exam room, the gentleman from the Cal Bar began to read the test instructions, he sounded like Buffalo Bill from “the Silence of the Lambs.” The whole time I could only think “it puts it’s pencils on the table and does as it’s told!” and this strange little man dancing around with “the tuck” in front of a mirror. But then came the “disaster instructions.” basically, you take the exam until the last possible moment to evacuate the building, then, if there are a lot of sections left over, Cal Bar will later decide what you should do.

The morning session of day 1 went beautifully. I went to lunch with a friend and came back feeling better. That sense of distress was gone. 1:00 we started the second half. It was supposed to end at 4. at 3:45, the earthquake hit. I’m not inexperienced with earthquakes. I’ve been through them, they don’t bother me. But big earthquakes, they bother me. And this one caused the exam to end early. 15 minutes, how does Cal Bar handle that? You finished early, no makeup questions, no points in your favor compared to those who weren’t forced to end early, you just take your chances against all those other people.

I got back to the Red Roof, yes, I went cheap, and collapsed on the bed. The Red Roof in Ontario is a horrible choice for a hotel. The earthquake had knocked out the power, and in July, the Inland Empire gets super hot! The ice machine was down, and the In & Out Burger was closed, there was no way to cool off. I ended up driving around in my car, wound up in Fullerton at my old hotel where I had stayed while studying, so I could upload my exam answers before driving back to Ontario.

That night was horrible. I couldn’t sleep. I was too hot, I wasn’t sure if my cell phone alarm would wake me, and I was nervous about the MBE’s. The MBE’s are the trickiest part of the exam, and I had done what BarBri said, and focused more on the written sections. Under stress, worried about being  jipped out of 15 minutes of writing time the day before, worried about a fire possibly engulfing the exam site, and also not being able to wake up on time, I panicked. I went for the books. My biggest mistake of the whole bar exam, not enough sleep the night before the MBE’s.

The MBE’s will try to trick you with the wording of questions and answers, you won’t always get a correct answer, you’ll sometimes get a “most correct” answer. Tehy are designed to fool those who don’t pay attention, or who are lacking in sleep. During the AM session, I got to question 50, and began to feel my eyes getting heavy. I fought to stay awake, but it took away from my concentration. I got through the final question just as the “Pencil’s down” notice was read.  After lunch, round two, this time sleepy and in a lunch coma. I actually felt my eyelids close and my body snap back awake. I aparently fell asleep for 10 minutes. Even though time was lost, I got up to use the rest room and see if some cold water would help. The cleaning crew was still working in there, and a black woman was mopping right next to the urinal I was at when i heard “Oh honey, you’ve got it goin on!” and saw her checking out my junk. I was too tired to care, besides, Cal Bar had three guys in there watching us pee, what damage did one more set of eyes do? I got the water, got out, and somehow managed to finish the test.

That night, there was an accident right at the off ramp near the Red Roof. Sirens and lights all night. Day 3 was similar, I was tired but pushed on.

Bad luck, yep I had it. Lack of sleep, yep did that too. Through all of that, one lousy stinking f–king question was all that separated me from passing that test on the first try. And it bugs me to this day!!!


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