Thanks to PG for asking me to contribute a post to De Novo's bar exam symposium. I blog over at Begging to Differ, and practice Internet law with a boutique firm in Seattle. This sometimes includes "spam litigation," which makes for great cocktail party conversation. It's always fun trying to explain to your parents that you sometimes stand up for the rights of people to send unsolicited commercial e-mail. More on that later maybe.
It's been a while since I've taken the bar (once in '97, and again in '98). My most prominent memories of the bar are "hit it and move on" -- the signature phrase of the MBE lecturer [fn1] -- and the heavy breather [fn2].
On the topic of whether the bar should be abolished, I can't think of an improved alternative, and those who advocate its abolition should come up with a better measure beyond law school that tests basic competence. While I, like most others, wholeheartedly agree that the bar exam does not adequately test lawyering skills (interpersonal skills, communication skills, or awareness of ethical standards for that matter), it roots out those that are so lacking in competence that we don't even let them enter the market. So it's better than nothing. Possibly I would add some components to the test, like something that tests research and something that tests formatting skills.
At any rate, the single most important thoughts that can carry you through the bar exams are: (1) if those crazy California lawyers you see advertising on billboards can pass the bar, then so can I; and (2) practice exams – practice exams – practice exams. On that first point, I'm convinced California has the wackiest collection of lawyers out there. A tour through the zoo that is the California bar (read the back of any month's bar publication) should be enough to convince you that, you too, can pass this exam with no problem. Seriously though, the bar is really a measure of whether you can put in the necessary amount of time within the given time constraints, both in studying for and taking the test. In some sense, this approximates a couple of basic skills in the practice of law, being able to actually put in some time and roughly budgeting your time.
Have I used any of the knowledge I learned during bar prep or during the exam? Absolutely not. It's foolish to think that the bar-bri provided "black letter law" will come in handy at any point in your law practice. Whatever the level of your practice (whether in-house counsel, big firm lawyer, government lawyer or solo) it's fairly certain that you will never turn to this knowledge of bar-bri black letter law in advising clients or writing briefs, agreements, or letters. I have heard of people consulting their bar-prep books to get them started on a question but most people quickly realize this is not a road you want to go down.
With those comments in mind, I offer my tips:
Laptop/typewriter: As far as the exam itself, I took it when laptops were not so prevalent and trying to use a laptop was more trouble than it was worth. I did, however, use a typewriter. I'm a much faster typist than a writer and my typewritten documents are much cleaner and more readable than anything I scrawl out. This helped because us typists were away from the crowd (anything you do to get away from the crowd is great).
Hotel: I'm not really that comfortable in hotels, unless they are nicer ones, so it wasn't worth the money to stay at a hotel during the bar; I lived one city over in both cases. Unless you are traveling from far out I would not advise it. Besides, you are likely to see a bunch of people taking the bar at the hotel and one thing you really really really want to avoid on Day 2 is the whole "what did you think about question #4," discussion, or the "what's the length of time for adverse possession" discussion.
Food: Food is something that’s worth planning out in advance. I don't remember what I did, but a grumbling stomach during the exam is something you want to avoid at all cost.
The Party: It's also worth planning a nice post-bar trip, even if it's just a night on the town or a jaunt around Europe or Asia. If you can hit a third world country, all the better. Nothing puts the bar exam into perspective like seeing poverty on a large scale.
Working and home-prep: I took the second bar exam while I was clerking and I borrowed the tapes from someone. Listening to the bar-prep tapes on your own is probably one of the most boring activities you will have to endure in your life. Also, there's an added level of stress that comes with taking the exam while you are working. But this experience didn't really dent the pocketbook or take too much time out of the schedule. For a second bar I recommend it.
[fn1] Who supposedly became fabulously wealthy through his bar-prep company, who had taken and passed some 40 different bar exams, and whose kids happened to go to school with OJ's.
[fn2] A prolific bar bri lecturer who just happened to be a loud breather.