How I studied for the Bar exam and how I use those skills today


The other day I found the outline I used when I studied for the Bar exam over thirty years ago. It was from a Bar review course I had taken, a single “mini-outline” that condensed eight volumes of study material into one paper-bound book.

I remember the process I followed to study for the exam. I went through each of the eight subject volumes, all of my notes, practice exams, and handouts from the review course (and anything I had saved from law school), distilled everything to what I considered essential and re-wrote this in my “mini-outline”.

There was plenty of white space for additional references, notes to myself, case citations, and examples that I wanted to remember. When I was done, I was able to put everything else aside and study just from the mini-outline.

Of course I learned most of what I needed to know not from studying the mini-outline but through the process of creating it. In deciding what to include in the outline, I had to read everything with a critical eye. I couldn’t just read everything as we typically do when we study, I had to think about what I was reading and make decisions about what it meant.

“What is the essence of this idea?” “Is it essential or tangential?” “How does this fit in with what I already know?” “How would I illustrate this?” “What is the opposing or minority view point?”

I didn’t think about it at the time but I was essentially doing research (my study material) for a paper (my mini-outline). I had to read like a writer, not a student.

Next, I went through the mini-outline with a hi-lighter and then again with a red pen. I circled key phrases, drew arrows from printed notes to my hand-written examples, and otherwise marked up my outline so that after several times through it, I had mastered it.

I remember during the exam itself, when I needed to recall something, I was able to see in my mind’s eye the actual page in my mini-outline where the information was written. I could see the yellow hi-lights and red arrows, what was at the top of the page and what was below. I could see and “read” my hand-written notes.

I had spent so much time creating the outline and studying it, I had all but memorized it. It was as if I had the book with me in the exam room.

There was something else I did to prepare for the exam. I knew I needed to have all of this information in my head, but I also needed to be able to “output” that information. We study for exams by reading but exams are taken by writing, so I knew I had to do as much of that as possible.

I took lots of practice exams. This helped me to discover where I might know something but not be able to express it. Or I had memorized something but really didn’t understand it. I could then go back and fill in the blanks and add those notes to my outline.

There was something else I did to prepare for the exam. I created, from memory, a one-page outline for each of the eight subjects. This really showed me what I knew and what I only thought I knew. I then re-wrote my one-page outlines, adding the material I had not been able to write from memory in red ink. When I was done, I had an “outline of my outline” and was able to study from those eight pages.

For good measure, I then wrote a one page outline of those eight pages. It was a summary of everything I had studied, reduced to a single page. There wasn’t room for details, and that was the point. While it didn’t really add anything to my body of knowledge, it was inspiring. “Everything” I needed to know was on one piece of paper.

I felt completely at ease during the exam. It was almost too easy. I was delighted when I got the news that I had passed, but not surprised. I knew the material and I was able to “output” what I knew onto the printed page. All of my preparation had paid off.

Today if I was studying, I would use “mind maps” to create a visual depiction of the information and how it fits together. It’s a better way to outline because it groups things organically, the way your mind sees them, instead of artificially forcing that information into linear order.

The process I used to study for the Bar exam has helped me over the years. I have used it to prepare litigated cases and in marketing. I use it in writing, preparing course material, and in live presentations. I often write first drafts “to see what I know”. I distill large quantities of information into shorter summaries. I outline my outlines.

For your next presentation, brief, report, or trial, when success is predicated on explaining and persuading, take what you know and distill it to its essence. Practice your presentation to see what you know and what you need to improve. Make an outline and re-write that outline until you can recite it from memory.

The job of an advocate, writer or presenter (or test taker) is to make things so clear that the listener or reader cannot possibly misunderstand. You don’t need to be brilliant or a gifted writer or orator to accomplish this. But you do need to know your material.