How Black Law Students Can Pass the Bar Exam the FIRST time


Every new law graduate has one goal – passing the bar exam.  As noted in an earlier post, African-American bar takers struggle to succeed on the bar for reasons wholly unconnected to their intellectual abilities.  If these risk factors are eliminated, Black law students can pass the bar the first time.

Below is a list of dos and don’ts for Black bar takers to follow so that they pass the bar exam the first time.  While some of these study tips are relevant for all law grads, others are specific to the risks Black bar takers encounter on their quest to pass.

Four Tips for Passing the Bar Exam The First Time

DO NOT . . . Work!

Black law students can pass the bar exam if they are focused.  The bar exam is a harsh taskmaster that requires your undivided attention.  While many law students –  particularly Black students – face considerable financial pressures that lead them to consider working while studying, dividing your attention during the bar exam is a bad idea.  Remember this sentence and repeat it often: Working while taking the bar exam is the surest way to ensure that you will have to take the bar exam a second (or even a third) time.

To justify working, many law grads think, “Well, I made it through law school, so I must be smart,” or “I already learned these things during law school.”  You are smart.  But even the smartest law student will never learn every subject tested on the bar because law school simply isn’t designed that way.  You need to study to learn the subjects that you didn’t cover in law school.   Moreover, you need to learn to take bar essays, which are nothing like law school exams.  Finally, on the bar exam, you need to learn to manage your time.  You will have six hours to finish the MBE.  While six hours seems like a luxurious amount of time, with 200 questions, you have just 1.8 minutes to read, analyze, and answer each question.

The bar exam can be conquered, but your chances of doing so are greater if you face the exam without distractions.  If you are thinking about working, talk to your law school to find out if they provide financial aid for the bar study period.  (Many do.)  If you cannot obtain a loan or you absolutely must work because you are a parent or are otherwise financially responsible for others, talk to your family and your law school about developing a plan to balance your bar study with your family obligations.  But working during the bar exam should be your very last resort, not your first option.

DO . . . Take a Bar Review Course.

Black law students can pass the bar exam if they are prepared.  As discussed above, because of financial pressures, many students feel the need to work during bar study.  For similar reasons, students also decide that they cannot afford the time or expense associated with a commercial bar review course.   The decision to forego bar prep is the equivalent of going to the Olympics without training.  The bar exam is your Olympics.  You need to train.  A commercial bar review course provides the best training.

Many law students think that they can learn the law on their own.  But as mentioned previously, to pass the bar, you need to learn more than the law.  You need skills that you did not learn in law school.  No matter how smart you are, you cannot teach yourself skills when you don’t even know what skills you need. Without a bar prep course, even the smartest, most dedicated student will simply be recycling the skills that helped her get through law school.  Unfortunately, these skills are not designed for the bar exam.

A commercial bar prep course will teach you how to write bar essays, how to approach multiple choice questions, which subjects to study, and how to make the best use of your study time.  The best thing about a bar review course is that a good one will give you multiple opportunities to practice the skills you will need to pass.  Also, you will get valuable feedback about your weak areas and give you the opportunity to fix them before the bar.  You cannot do this for yourself because you have no idea how to write a bar essay or whether New York will test Commercial Paper this year.  You cannot give yourself the honest feedback you need to write solid bar essays.

Some bar preppers try to split the difference by opting out of the course but getting the bar review materials from last year’s classes.  This idea is a bad one because the books alone won’t teach you the skills or give you the feedback that you need to pass.  Also, the law changes frequently.  If you have last year’s books, you have last year’s law.

If you think you can’t afford a bar review course, talk to your law school.  Many schools offer free bar prep courses or provide bar prep loans to cover the cost of bar prep.  Either way, bar prep should be a priority.


DO . . . Make a Schedule.

Black law students can pass the bar exam if they make time for it.   To pass, you will need to study a minimum of eight hours each day over a period of six to eight weeks.  To do that successfully, you will need to account for every moment of your time while you study.

You need a schedule to keep your studies on track.  A good bar review course will teach you one topic every one to two days.  The course will expect you to outline and synthesize each day’s law every night.  If you do not follow a schedule, you will quickly fall behind.

But you need a schedule for more than study.  The things you need to live a normal life – hygiene, household chores, grocery shopping, car maintenance, etc. – must also be scheduled.  If they are not, your study time will soon be eclipsed by other obligations.

Finally, though it seems counterintuitive, you must also schedule time to rest!  The bar exam is not just a test of your intellect.  It is also a test of your stamina.  You must get a good night’s sleep each night.  Moreover, if you had a practice that kept you sane during law school – attending religious services, going to the gym, yoga classes, whatever – you must include that on your schedule.  If you don’t, you run the risk of burning out weeks before the bar exam.  You cannot succeed on the bar if your brain is tired or anxious.  Keeping yourself rested and calm will prepare you for success.


DO . . . Believe in Yourself!

Black law students can pass the bar exam the first time if they believe that they will!  All bar takers, no matter their race, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, income level, age, or life experience, are anxious prior to the bar exam.  In small amounts, this anxiety can be a good thing!  Overconfidence has caused many bright law grads to stumble on the bar.  A little anxiety keeps overconfidence at bay.  But too much anxiety will destroy the hopes of the brightest, most prepared students.

But for Black law grads, overconfidence is rarely the issue.  Sadly, Black students are more likely to struggle with the belief that they are doomed to fail the bar.  A google search for “black law students bar exam passage” will yield pages of distressing information.  So, while all students struggle with self-confidence during bar prep, Black students need to confront the struggle in different ways.

In nearly all academic environments, Black students must deal with stereotype threat – the fear that one’s failure will be attributed to not to their personal efforts, but to a characteristic such as race.  According to Dean Russell McClain, director of academic support at the University of Maryland School of Law, stereotype threat is particularly high for Black law students taking the bar exam.  He wrote, “Of course, the bar exam—perhaps the highest stakes of all exams for a would-be lawyer—is an obvious culprit [in generating stereotype threat]. Law graduates who want to become lawyers are highly invested in the outcome of the bar exam, of course, and this tends to exacerbate the scope of the threat. Hence, we could expect to see lower-than-able performance on the bar exam for those who are subject to the threat.”

So, while all bar takers need to believe in themselves to succeed on the exam, Black students need to believe a little harder.

If you are struggling with self-confidence during the bar period, think of the African American lawyers who made it possible for you to sit for the bar.  Lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and Constance Baker Motley broke down barriers – and often, they did it while facing the threat of physical, emotional, or financial retribution.    But you needn’t limit yourself to famous lawyers.  If you are Black, many people in your family have likely achieved success against indescribable odds.  When you feel anxiety creeping in, take a moment to remember your roots.

Finally, as you make your list of role models, don’t forget to add yourself to the list!  In your journey through life, you have likely fought and won many battles that seemed unwinnable or done things that no one thought you’d be able to do. When you get nervous about the bar, remind yourself that you’ve succeeded before and you will do so again.

The bar is difficult, but difficult and impossible are not synonyms.  When they take the right steps, and follow these tips, Black law students can pass the bar exam the first time.  If you need help, reach out to friends, family, a trusted professor, or a mentor.  If you do not have a mentor, the African American Attorney Network is a great place to find one. Search our member directory and reach out to someone for help.