Last week I got confirmation that I passed (indeed, annihilated) the October 2016 California First Year Law Students’ Exam!

The Exam

For those not in the know, this test, cutely dubbed the “Baby Bar,” is required for all California law students who are not in an ABA-accredited law school. As the ABA, being the grumpy old people that they are, refuses to accredit any online law schools, those like me and want to do law school while having a job (or traveling the world, raising a family, or whatever else makes you happy) are stuck taking the Baby Bar.  The exam is taken after you’ve finished your first year. It is offered every June and October, and you must pass within 3 sittings for the exam (e.g., I finished my first year in November 2015, and therefore was required to pass either June 2016, October 2016, or June 2017). If you don’t pass, your law school studies are over until you do, and when you eventually pass, you can receive law school credit only for your first year.

The exam is 100 multiple choice questions and 4 essay questions, allegedly each representing half your grade, at the same difficulty level as the real Bar Exam. The only difference is that the real Bar Exam tests 12 subjects instead of the 3 on the Baby Bar: criminal law, tort law, and contract law. The nice thing about this is that you can use actual past Bar Exam questions as prep for the Baby Bar. The bad thing about this is the pass rate for the Baby Bar is typically in the range of 20% – 25% — the odds are against you from the start. And, the cost to take the exam including all fees is $777, plus travel to Los Angeles or San Francisco if you’re not local.

My First Attempt

In the spring, I was getting ready for the test and taking practice exams, and from what I could see, my scores were in the passing range. Confident, in June I went to Oakland and sat for the Baby Bar exam, which felt pretty good upon taking it. The exam takes 45 days to grade, and in early August I got my results: failed by 1 percentage point.

I was disappointed and a bit surprised (although with a pass rate of 20% – 25%, not passing the first time is not exactly unexpected), since all the practice exams said that I was doing great on the multiple choice and ok on the essays. When I reviewed the written score report, the answer became clear: the Bar’s curving of the exam effectively made the essays count significantly more than the multiple choice.  My multiple choice received nearly a perfect score, but the bar examiners did not like my essays. This was frustrating since the State Bar specifically published that the sections would be given “equal weight:”

An applicant’s total score on the examination is the sum of an applicant’s converted scores on the multiple-choice and essay sections.  This step gives these sections equal weight in determining the total score.

The State Bar lies!

I tried appealing my grade to the State Bar since it would clearly have been passing had they weighted equally as they had promised, but they wouldn’t hear it.  So, it probably won’t surprise you, if you’re a long-time reader, that I’ll be filing a small lawsuit to get my exam fees back since the exam I was given was not the exam advertised. 🙂  But, I digress…

My Second Attempt

To fix my essay writing, I did two things:

First, during the previous sitting, I hand-wrote the exam rather than typed it.  The Bar charges an extra fee for the “privilege” of typing your exam, and I figured it was better to rely on pen-and-paper and avoid any technical issues that day.  But, quite simply, I can type more words per minute than I can hand-write, and on this exam, you need to be working as fast as possible.  I think if I had typed the June sitting, I probably would have passed (being 1% away from a passing score, pretty much any improvement at all would have made the difference!).  Seriously, do not hand-write this exam!

Second, I spent time going through several past exams, writing out the answers, and comparing them to the model answers that the State Bar published to figure out what I had missed.  This also gets you a feel for how the State Bar likes to see answers presented to them.  There’s a pattern, and it seems that following it may be a good idea. 🙂

The end result was that my multiple choice score stayed about the same, but each essay increased in score by, on average, almost 15 percentage points.  I could have actually written my 4th essay on “why it’s important to advertise the correct scoring methodology when you’re giving exams to law students” and taken a 0 and still passed.  (Actual essay questions for October 2016 FYLSX).

Study Tips

Here’s what I recommend for practice (these products are what I actually used and I receive no compensation for listing them):

1) PMBR Audio Lectures. PMBR is a company that, before they were bought by Kaplan, produced awesome bar review lectures. If it’s not on the Bar Exam (and thus not on the Baby Bar exam), it’s not covered, allowing you to focus on only the material that you need to know. Their criminal, tort, and contract lectures total about 14 hours and are by far the best use of 14 hours spent on reviewing substantive law. The easiest place to find their CDs is on eBay or (search “pmbr contracts audio,” or torts, criminal), as they don’t seem to offer the CDs as a stand-alone product anymore.

2) Fleming’s Baby Bar Review. Prof. Fleming runs one of the very few courses that targets the Baby Bar specifically. He has take-home materials, but for about $300 you can take a 3-day, in-person workshop where you’ll review substantive law, practice writing essays in exam-day conditions, and are given the opportunity to take home 6 practice essays which Fleming’s will grade for you, along with detailed feedback, for no additional charge.

3) AdaptiBar. Adaptibar licenses official Multistate Bar Exam questions from the National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and allows you to practice the multiple choice section on their Web site. The NCBE doesn’t actually write the questions for the Baby Bar, but they are substantially similar. Great for both getting an idea of how you’re doing and for learning what you need to study more of.

4) The Famed 1980 Exam. While the California Bar releases every Baby Bar’s essay questions and answers, they have only released one multiple choice exam ever — from 36 years ago! To be perfectly honest, this is because they are lazy and re-use questions from year to year, so if they released every exam, they’d have to re-write them. But, if you take the 1980 exam as practice and then take the next Baby Bar, it will astonish you how many questions they still re-use with only minor variations. You’d think for $777 per test taker they’d be able to afford to come up with fresh material.

5) Past Essay Exams. Take the questions, write them in an hour each, and compare your answers to the practice answers. They’re showing you exactly how they want it done. Do it that way.

…and finally, make sure you pay the laptop fee and type the exam, and if your typing is slow, learning how to type faster should be a part of your studies (you’ll need that as a lawyer anyway!).