Monday, June 30, 2008

A lawyer walks into a bar

By way of Prettier Than Napoleon and The Volokh Conspiracy comes this news flash: There is a documentary about the bar exam. The moviemakers' MySpace page contains this preview of A Lawyer Walks into a Bar:

The MoneyLaw point, however, doesn't lie so much in the movie as it does in Ilya Somin's commentary on The Volokh Conspiracy:
I think many law school graduates get overly stressed out and obsessed about taking the bar, and spend too much time studying. Most bar exams are primarily just tests of memorization. They're not much of an intellectual challenge, and require far less thinking than most law school exams.

A lawyer walks into a barMost important, all you have to do is pass. Unlike on the SAT or the LSAT, there is no need to maximize your score. As one of my law school classmates put it, every point you score above the minimum needed to pass is evidence that you spent too much time studying. I took this excellent advice to heart, and saved a lot of time and aggravation as a result (primarily by not attending any Bar/Bri lectures, and confining my preparation efforts to reading the books and taking some practice tests). If you're reasonably good at managing your time and memorizing legal rules, you can probably do the same thing.

It's not often that a professor tells students to spend less time studying. But when it comes to the bar exam, for many students it's the best pedagogical advice I can give.
A lawyer walks into a barSorry, Ilya. Though I'm often sympathetic to your views on the market economy, this simply is not good advice. Many law school graduates do get "stressed out and obsessed about taking the bar," but that's because many law school graduates flunk the bar. Yes, it's also true that "all you have to do is pass." Actual bar passage numbers show that this is more readily said than done. Every year, a not insubstantial number of recent law school graduates stride up to the bar and fail. These failures matter for a reason that is as important as it is simple: law school graduates who don't pass the bar can't practice law.

The vast majority of law school graduates lead lives and face realities that are not the lot assigned to their teachers. An academic appointment is an immense privilege in a world of finite resources and constrained opportunities, and those of us lucky enough to hold a winning ticket should refrain from treating our life circumstances as realistic benchmarks for the legal profession as a whole. Students attend law school in order ultimately to work. That is the market that counts, and the bar exam, for better or for worse, represents a very real and economically crucial first step.


Blogger Unknown said...

Hear, hear! I made some of the same posts over at my blog ( Even the very, very smart law graduate runs too great a risk by relying on the hoary old saw that, because the bar is pass/fail, one only needs to study enough to achieve a passing score. Who on earth wants to gamble three-four years of school and a gargantuan student loan debt on the suggestion that working less hard on this particular high-stakes exam is a low-risk move?

6/30/2008 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must disagree, based on what I assume is the spirit of the original post by Ilya.

The Bar exam is an intellectually vacuous event. As Associate Dean I had the privilege of sitting in on the meetings of the folks who authored and graded the essay examinations for the Pennsylvania Bar, and I can report that a low C answer is easily passing. The problem is that we shuffle too many students through the system with below C performance, and they then flounder on the Bar exam.

Here's my advice to students (accepting that Jim is quite correct that passing the Bar is critical to their future job, although it may not be): if you did well on standardized tests and can memorize material, don't sweat the Bar (but don't take it for granted either). On the other hand, if you are in the bottom 30% of the class and have relatively low standardized test scores, you had better focus on memorizing a lot of material and getting good at taking multiple choice, but quick.

In my humble opinion, the Bar exam is not a big deal for the academically talented (some of whom will make terrible lawyers), but it is going to be a big deal for those who have not done well in the scantron world of testing (many of whom will make good, solid lawyers if they get over this first hurdle).

Why not distinguish what advice you give to which students?

My advice has nothing to do with how you should prepare to be a lawyer, but everything to do with how to gain the credi ability to

6/30/2008 11:35 PM  
Blogger Richard Peck said...

Why would any law school, or professor for that matter, armed with the knowledge that students "with below C performance" are likely to flounder on the bar exam (from which it follows that the school's and student's resources are wasted) nonetheless "shuffle too many students through the system with below C performance"? Is anyone served?

Second, many bar exam failures result from factors other than a lack of academic ability, including poor preparation brought on by overconfidence. Every list of bar results has names of more than a few students with records of law school achievement who somehow failed the bar, almost all of whom take it again six months later and pass -- not because they grew smarter or because their law school's ranking improved, but because they were better prepared for the task at hand.

7/03/2008 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all about safety margin. More study (probably) means more safety margin. I think Ilya's point was that too much safety margin can be irrational from an economics standpoint, and that many bar studiers try to attain an irrational safety margin.

I agree with him. I studied far less than most of my classmates and easily passed. People waste a LOT of time on bar study.

7/04/2008 1:22 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

The vast majority of law school graduates lead lives and face realities that are not the lot assigned to their teachers. and if you did well on standardized tests and can memorize material, don't sweat the Bar (but don't take it for granted either) are both true to an extent.

After all many bar exam failures result from factors other than a lack of academic ability, including poor preparation brought on by overconfidence. Every list of bar results has names of more than a few students with records of law school achievement who somehow failed the bar.

The first time I took the bar, there was an automatic pass in the state I was in if your multistate score was high enough, and mine was.

The second bar I took I finished each section an hour early, for three days, and got scores that made me feel good.

I know, no one cared but me, but I felt a lot better than I would have with a passed with not a point to spare.

I've a friend who failed a bar exam by 1% -- and he had professor Ilya's attitude. Unfortunately, that derailed him and he ended up on the slow track.

I'm all for some reality, but also for realizing which reality you are going to encounter.

7/05/2008 7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took a bar exam in VA and did not pass it. My MBE score was in the 90th percentile, a solid 161. I came up short on the essays although VA does not give a breakdown of the scores so you don’t have a clue if you were japed by some amateur grader that found your handwriting difficult to read, or you missed some fundamental essay in its entirety. I missed passing by about four points. It was bloody unfortunate. But it also cast’s doubt on the validity of the VA day essays which should statistically match an MBE score of this caliber.

What I don’t like are amateur graders that act subjectively on an essay. Maybe you have a hostile young female attorney that is PMSing and looking for the Palmer method loops often used to identify female handwriting. There is a bias on the VA exam that favors female handwriting in the essays. They claim that the higher MBE scores favor males. Yet VA weighs the essays at 60% and the MBE at 40%.

The worst part of the essay is that when graded by an amateur, the grader makes no attempt to try to measure the essay in quantitative terms. There are signals, key phrases, elements, and facts from hypos that form the persuasion and the rule exceptions, defenses form the rules of law. But these are quantifiable. VA however, doesn’t want you to underline; they find it “distracting.” What’s that? Distracting from key words, elements, exceptions? [“Suspend reason and you can play it duces wild.” Ayn Rand] So they play it duces wild and their low budget graders get away with incompetence and don’t have to answer to anybody. It is purely subjective crap.

The proper grading of an essay is a metric grid not an aesthetic appreciation contest. Further it should never never be left in the hands of one individual. A proper grading system tries to remove bias error, not introduce it.

I noted in the blog discussion a cavalier tone from some former amateur graders talking about “C” graded essays. To me this is subjective crap which is just slightly less vapid than instructors that waste class time pretending to engage in the Socratic technique when in fact they are just trying to embarrass some student that didn’t read the case. Law schools are filled with poor quality lawyers posing as professors claiming mastery of the Socratic technique and equal mastery of the legal essay.

I will be taking this test again. I will be typing this time in order to remove some of the potetial for anti-aggressive male bias. I will most definitely underline. I will number elements. I will not use legalize or bully them as I am dong here. I will quote precise statutes. While not necessary, this technique operates like pinstripes, it impresses small minds and those that crave rote over substance. Instead of communicating in complete sentences, I will write like a high school kid reads aloud. I will abandon cadence. My writing will be flat. My thoughts will shorten. I will strive for bland.

It is true that I have to get by the bar somewhere. In Michigan I would have passed just on the strength of my big MBE score. I can always transfer the score into another state that allows MBE transfers. It is time and it is money. It is a waste of time and waste of money.

11/14/2008 1:30 AM  
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