Asked and Answered

How to prepare for another try at the bar exam (podcast with transcript)

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It’s not terribly unusual for a law grad to need to take the bar exam more than once to pass. But the experience of failing the bar can be crushing to one’s confidence–and concentration. After failing the bar exam, many students have a hard time studying for a retake. This is not necessarily because they can’t do the work, but because anxiety and fear of failure get in the way, Jamie Kleppetsch of John Marshall Law School tells the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward in this month’s Asked and Answered.

Kleppetsch, who is president of the Association of Academic Support Educators as well as being an associate director of John Marshall’s Academic Achievement Program, shares with listeners some tips for reapproaching the bar exam with a fresh mindset and more preparation.

Podcast transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: If your first attempt at the bar exam was unsuccessful, what can you do to pass the next time around? I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and joining me in the studio for today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered is Jamie Kleppetsch. She’s an assistant professor and the associate director of John Marshall Law School’s Academic Achievement Program and she has many ideas on how JDs can prepare for bar exam retakes. Welcome to the show, Jamie.

Jamie Kleppetsch: Thank you, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Is one of the biggest hurdles for someone who doesn’t pass the bar the first time, and they’re doing it the second time or the third time, is fear a huge part of what can hold them back?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yes, absolutely. Fear plays a lot into it because they weren’t successful the first time and they’re afraid that they’re going to repeat that course of action no matter how hard they studied. I think especially if they did study very hard and worked very hard the first time or the time previous that they’re worried that no matter what they do, it might not result in a successful pass.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And in terms of what you tend to see, is it usually the person who studied really hard who doesn’t pass or is it more that he or she didn’t give the bar exam its due?

Jamie Kleppetsch: It really depends. Today, we’re seeing a variation of applicant who’s not passing the bar exam. Unfortunately, there are many applicants out there who are studying very hard, who are doing hours and hours of work everyday for the requisite period of time, and are not successful.

For a lot of them, it’s generally some sort of personal issue that has risen up during the study period that has taken their focus away from studying, or the anxiety of the monumental effect of the bar exam gets in their way and tends to throw them off course as they’re taking the exam. But there are people out there who are not studying as much as they should.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have taken the bar exam a long time ago and it was a different bar exam and the advice they give is, “Oh, you’re fine. You can work half a day, study half a day,” and really encourage them to give less attention to the exam than it truly needs now, because it is a different bar exam today than it was even 15 years ago.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, does it change every city? And I have the impression the bar exam, not a lot but each time, the questions are different.

Jamie Kleppetsch: Each time, most of the questions are different. Some of the multiple choice will stay the same but there’s no real way to track which were the same from before because there’s about 200 multiple choice that you’re looking at. But it does change from time to time and it depends on state to state as to when they change it. Sometimes, they change the subjects that are tested on the different parts of the bar exam. Sometimes, they change the number of questions that they have for different parts of the bar exam and all of that can go into really changing the bar exam and your study thoughts as a whole.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So if someone doesn’t pass the bar, what are some questions to ask themselves about what they can do next time and just to be reflective in a way that you’re not completely beating yourself up?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Well, the first thing you want to do is if your jurisdiction allows you to review your exam answers, you should go and review those exams answers to see exactly what happened. You can tend to have what I call “bar exam amnesia” when you come out after the bar exam. You think that you put down certain answers. You believe that you completely dealt with a certain topic. Yet when you go back and review the answers you actually put in, it’s almost as if somebody else has written them because you thought you had done more or done something differently than what actually appeared.

So that can be extremely instructive into how to approach studying the next time around, because you get to see what did you actually do and where do you need to go from there.

Another thing that you should do is review your score report from your jurisdiction to see what are the areas of the exam that you performed better on and worse on to try to give yourself an idea of where you should spend more time in your studies.

Then, on top of that, be honest with yourself about how much time you actually devoted to studying for the exam. Did you give everything that you had, or did you buy season tickets for the Cubs and you went to a lot of baseball games instead of actually spending the time studying?

Stephanie Francis Ward: Now, I have heard with some states, if you don’t pass, you can look at your test and perhaps challenge it and say, “No, this was right.” How does that work?

Jamie Kleppetsch: It depends on the jurisdiction. Actually a lot of jurisdictions in some of the bigger ones don’t allow you to appeal your score. There’s actually a regrade built into the rules such that if an applicant gets within a certain number of points of passing, they’re automatically regraded, so there is no appeal process because they have already taken a look at the answers a second time around. If they do give you the opportunity to appeal, they will follow their process that they have on the bar examiner’s website. There will be a step-by-step process for appealing, and that would be something that they would send with your score results.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. So of the former students you see that they’re unsuccessful in their first attempt and then they pass the second time around, what are some things that you know about their second time bar preparation that you think stands out and led to them being successful?

Jamie Kleppetsch: The first thing is they seek support. So they don’t just go it alone and decide they’re going to handle it all themselves. They go out and they seek support from someone like myself. There are a bunch of me at law schools all across the country, some even better versions, and they go and they seek support from the people at their law schools.

There are a lot of times the commercial bar companies will have representatives that have worked closely with the students throughout the bar-study period. They can go and speak with them or they seek the help of a tutor or someone else, and that person can help guide them through realistically, what do they need to do now that may be a little bit different than before; what do they need to keep the same; where should they focus their energy; how to balance their studying with whatever else may be going on in their life, because things have now changed. This is six months later.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Are there some bar prep courses that are specifically for people who have failed a bar exam once? Are there special courses one can take?

Jamie Kleppetsch: There aren’t special courses out there. I do recommend that students continue taking a commercial bar prep course because they do have practice questions. They have the law there. They have support for the student built into the program. You might need to tweak it a little bit. You wouldn’t necessarily follow the program the exact same way that you did the first time. But for the most part, it’s much of the same process as the first time.

There may be some schools that may have programs devoted to repeat takers. One of the things that we do at my school is we reach out and talk to people who were not successful on the bar exam, and we do offer a lot of one-on-one tutoring with those people in addition to the other courses and programs that they may be engaged in.

Stephanie Francis Ward: We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, I’m going to ask you a bit more about the tutoring you can do for one-on-one.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I am with Jamie Kleppetsch. She is an assistant professor at John Marshall and part of her work—actually probably a lot of her work—is around helping students and recent graduates pass the bar exam. Welcome back.

So we were speaking about bar exam prep courses for people who’ve had an unsuccessful sitting for the bar. What do you think about the one-on-one tutoring for someone? How does that work and is it a good idea? What are the costs, etc.

Jamie Kleppetsch: So there are different types of tutors that are available. Some law schools, their academic support personnel can help with that, and can work with students and provide that tutoring, and that’s generally is free. There are also tutors, private tutors that are available. A lot of times, a private tutor is a significant cost. It can be several thousands of dollars in order to engage a private tutor.

However, sometimes there are people who need that extra attention and support and a private tutor can be great. There’s a number of ways that they provide these services. If the tutor’s local, they’ll generally meet face-to-face with the applicant and run through practice questions, run through the law that may be the focus of their discussion on that particular day, to help make sure that the student is understanding the law, that they’re performing well on practice essays or practice multiple choice, and helping the student see where they may have some weaknesses and how to improve them.

Some other tutors I know meet via Skype because they may be across the country, so they will set up Skype appointments and meet that way. Those might be a little less expensive than some of the ones that will meet face-to-face. Some tutors will charge for the time they take to prepare for the meeting and some won’t. Some will just charge for the actual meeting time with the person.

And applicants should really think about whether they want to engage a tutor, whether the have the finances to engage a tutor, and shop around, ask a lot of questions to decide if it’s a good fit. And if not, that’s OK. Not everybody needs a private tutor, but for the ones who I have seen use them, have been very happy with the results that they have gotten from them.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And would the private tutor be on top of a bar prep course?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yes. The private tutors generally that I have had experience with have required the applicant to still engage in a commercial bar preparation course, and so they are receiving those materials from them and the regular schedule from the commercial bar course and then they have that individualized, more specific attention from the tutor on generally a weekly or twice a week basis.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And I was curious as you were saying that at some schools offer the private tutoring for free. Why would you hire someone if you could get it for free at your school?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Well, some people may not want to go back to their school. With not passing the bar exam, there’s a lot of disappointment but there’s also—I think shame’s a terrible word because I don’t think there’s any shame in not passing the bar exam, but that is a word that a lot of people I have worked with have said that they feel.

They don’t want to go back to the school. They don’t want to see the students who they may know and have known that they took the bar exam. They don’t want to see former professors who they run into and say, “Hey, how did the bar exam go?” It’s a terrible question to have to answer, and brings up all of those very raw feelings that you’re having as you’re studying again.

And so sometimes, it can be a struggle to go back to the school; and a lot of academic support personnel are not able to generally go off-campus to meet with people because of their intense workload that they have already. So that can be one of the reasons. Another reason may be that you have had a lot of recommendations for a certain tutor from former classmates or other colleagues, and so you decide that you would rather go with that other person.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have advice for people who are taking the bar and say they have a condition that makes it hard to study sometimes. Like maybe they have ADHD or some pretty significant anxiety. What kind of advice do you have for that? Hopefully, they would know these things and have good ways to deal with it before they get to the bar exam, but who knows? Maybe it comes up again.

Jamie Kleppetsch: Well, if they’re having difficult studying and they don’t have a diagnosed condition—so they’re having trouble focusing or they’re extremely anxious and stressed out as they’re studying and it’s above and beyond normal amounts of stress that they would have experienced before—I think that they should definitely talk to their doctor about that, and see if there may be something more going on. And they may be experiencing symptoms of a condition that there may be other types of treatment that they could engage in that would help them focus, that would help lessen the anxiety and stress that they’re going through.

And nothing’s ever going to get rid of all of the stress, but that’s a good place to start. If they already have a diagnosed condition and they know that they’re dealing with that ahead of time, the first thing is that all of the bar exams have some sort of non-standard testing accommodation associated with them. So if a student has a diagnosed condition that qualifies for non-standard testing accommodation—for example, additional time to take the exam in, maybe a private or a semi private room so that there’s less distractions—the applicant should definitely apply for those accommodations.

A lot of times, we see people who are unsuccessful because they have these diagnosed conditions yet they choose not to apply for the accommodation—and then, unfortunately, they are not successful because they should have had those accommodations and that may have led to a more successful outcome for them.

So they should apply for those accommodations and also try to work through with stress, different types of meditation and relaxation techniques that can help calm them, especially things that can provide immediate calming effects. Slow, deep breathing is always helpful. Trying to focus on different successful outcomes, like imagining being successful, and trying to go through those different types of activities to help them calm their nerves so that they can focus better.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you find that perhaps one of the significant problems for people getting ready for the bar exam, especially if they’re retaking it, is they just can’t get a good night’s sleep because they’re up at 3:00 a.m. in a panic? I would imagine that probably happens a lot and it’s detrimental to your success. Do you hear about that much?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yeah. There are a lot of students who that is a huge issue for them, is that they just can’t sleep. And that could be because they feel like, “I just need to do more work. If I just do 10 more multiple choice questions, if I just read through one more outline,” so they go to bed a lot later. And then there’s also people who are waking up in the middle of the night and stressed out and having a panic attack. Those definitely contribute to it.

Our brains aren’t able to transfer our short-term memory that we’re studying all day long to our long-term memory until we actually sleep. And so sleep is a huge component of success for the bar exam. So again, maybe talking—if it’s a severe situation—talking to their doctor to find out if there is a different activity or in some cases, medications that might be necessary to take to help them get a good night’s sleep, that can definitely play into it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have thoughts or suggestions on how to set up your day when you’re studying for the bar? Because it seems like if you kind of gave yourself a schedule, “OK, I’m going to have breakfast and I’m going to study this from whenever to whenever that I’m going to exercise for an hour and read so my mind can unwind.” Do you have thoughts on how to set up your day in a healthy way?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yeah. Definitely creating a study schedule is a great place to start, and the study schedule doesn’t have to go on anybody’s terms other than that particular applicant’s. I do generally recommend to everybody I’m working with on the bar exam that if they’re going to do a practice test of any kind, to do it sometime between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. because that’s when the bar exam occurs in every jurisdiction.

So if you’re doing the practice test at the time of day that you would do them on the bar, then you’re conditioning yourself for when you were actually going to take that exam. Doing a practice test at 11:00 p.m. at night is just not helpful because even if you’re get—

Stephanie Francis Ward: And then you’ll be stressed out because you’re like, “Oh, I did so bad,” and you won’t go to sleep because you’re in panic.

Jamie Kleppetsch: Exactly, exactly. With the study schedule, something that the applicant should think about is: What do they want to accomplish for that particular day? Most people will have in their day watching or attending a lecture provided by a commercial bar course; reviewing notes that they took with that lecture; taking practice multiple choice tests; reviewing the answers and explanations; taking practice essay tests; reviewing those model answers against the applicant’s answer; and then reading outlines for the next lecture that’s going to come around.

So those are the main things that you want to do each day. That’s going to depend on the length of your day based upon how many questions you’re going to do, how long of a subject it is that you’re reviewing, that type of thing. So basically, having a main checklist of “this is what I’m going to accomplish” and being able to check that off is good. You don’t want to schedule your day too tight because then, if you go a minute over or 10 minutes over, now you’ve created more stress for yourself because you’re bleeding into the next activity that you were going to do.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have advice for people who feel like they need to work while they’re studying for the bar exam? I would imagine the first piece is, “Well, try to avoid that if you possibly can.” But you hear that there’s people, they feel like they can’t. So do you have any advice for working and studying for the bar?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yes, absolutely. The first advice obviously is don’t work if you don’t have to. Unfortunately, with people who are retaking the bar exam, that is generally not a luxury that they have. Most students can defer their loans for the first six months or so after they graduate from law school. But then after that, unless they go back to school, they can’t continue to defer them most of the time—which means loans are starting to come due at the time when you’re taking your next bar exam. And so you, a lot of times, have to go out and work.

I recommend that you work as light of a schedule as possible and whatever that means, if you have to build up vacation time and use vacation time in order to study or sick time in order to study, however that works best with your job, try to do that. If you have to work, try to work with someone like an academic support person from your school to help you create a schedule that is centered around your work schedule, so that you can accomplish a lot during your work week and then you can pile a bulk of things on on the days when you have days off.

So if you have to work an eight-hour day, Monday through Friday, maybe you come home and you do three to four hours of watching a lecture or reading through outlines, but maybe you save your practice questions until the weekend. So you have an opportunity to spend more time, do larger sets of practice questions on the weekend in addition to maybe reviewing the law more.

Stephanie Francis Ward: This is a little bit off-topic, but based on what you just said about law school loans coming due, that makes me think even more if you possibly can, you should not work while you take the bar exam. Now, I have the impression that you can take out extra loans to live off—or maybe if you plan things correctly so you don’t have to work in that time period. Is that true and if so, what’s your advice on that?

Jamie Kleppetsch: That is true. It depends on the person’s own financial situation. There are going to be some people who will need to have a cosigner because of other loans they may have taken out for their education or other things in their life, and that can be difficult if they can’t find that person. There are generally—they’re called bar exam loans out there.

Now, bar exam loans are very high in their interest rates so you have to be extremely careful and only take them out if you absolutely need to. Most of these lenders will only let you take them out once. So if you took them out for the first time you took the bar and you were not successful, you’re probably not going to be able to take them out the second time. So that’s something to think about.

Do you have the opportunity to take out those loans or not? Are there other places that you might be able to find financial support with family? Maybe your commercial bar course has some sort of financial support system. Some of them have scholarships available through them that you can apply for that you might be able to use during that time.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Is it realistic too to think that you can just kind of squirrel away some of your loan money throughout so you have enough money saved up over the three years to support yourself during that time period?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Yes, absolutely. We recommend that from the time that students come in in orientation, but who remembers what’s said at orientation? We tell them, “Hey, the bar exam is really expensive. From paying for a commercial bar course to paying the application fees to the state bar examiners to your living expenses, we’re talking several thousand dollars just to take the bar exam. And so you should start from the time you enter law school trying to put some of that money away whenever you can.”

I always tell students at the holidays, if you can’t think of good gift ideas, ask people to give you money to save for the bar, or pay for your commercial bar course, or give you money to live when you’re taking the bar exam so that you don’t have to work, you can spend all your time and energy studying.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: So if you fail the bar exam and you decide you’re going to retake it, how long of a break should you give yourself before you start studying again?

Jamie Kleppetsch: That’s going to depend on the jurisdiction where you’re taking the bar exam and it’s going to depend largely on when you receive your results from the bar exam. So some jurisdictions will give you the results from the bar exam five or more months before the next bar exam. And some, you’re going to be getting those results maybe three to four months before the next bar exam.

If you have a long time, like five or more months from when you received your results till when the next bar exam is going to occur, you can probably give yourself a few weeks, maybe even a month to kind of deal with the emotional impact of not passing the bar exam and ease yourself back into studying.

If not, if it’s four months or less, you should probably think about giving yourself maybe only one to two weeks to process and then start jumping back in. And the reason you want to jump back in a little earlier is a couple fold.

One, it is really hard to start studying for the bar once you have not been successful, and students will have an array of emotions that they will go through when they open those books again. Some of it’s anger. Some of it’s sadness. Some of it is extreme disappointment but whatever it happens to be, it can manifest itself physically.

And I’ve seen students who have come back and told me that they tried to open their books but every time they do, they burst out crying. They have tried to open their books but they threw them against a wall because they couldn’t even look at the books anymore, because they were just so mad that they had to go through this process over again when they had given so much effort the first time.

So you want to give yourself what I call “time to walk away.” So when you have that extreme emotional, physical reaction to studying again, that you can have it. Deal with it, walk away, close the books, come back—whether it’s a couple hours later or a couple days later—and then try it again. And you might have three or four walkaways before you actually get back into studying.

Another thing is that you might be working, and so you need to have that extra time built in so that you can study over a longer period of time. If you have to work 30, 40 hours a week, then you want to give yourself as much space between when you start studying and when the bar exam actually occurs so that you can get all of the studying in that you need to before.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I know you mentioned earlier that so many people—it’s just this sense of shame and embarrassment they have when they don’t pass the bar, which that seems to be completely normal reaction. It’s also not a very beneficial reaction ultimately. Shame is a really harmful emotion. What do you tell people when they come in and you can sense they’re feeling that or they tell you? What’s your advice? They’re not the first person who’s failed the bar exam, and there’s a lot of talented lawyers who didn’t pass on their first try.

Jamie Kleppetsch: Well, one of the things I do remind them of all those famous people who took several, several tries to pass the bar exam.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Who are some of those people?

Jamie Kleppetsch: Well, JFK Jr. was one of them. I believe the most recent [Chicago] Mayor Daley took a few times to pass the bar exam. And that we have a lot of alums who took one or more times to pass the bar exam and fortunately, we do have many of them who are willing to share their experience and act as a mentor or a guide for someone and kinda help them through that time.

So we do offer those connections for them so that they can talk to somebody who knows what it’s like to be in their shoes, and that you’re going to come out OK on the other end. It’s just going to take a little longer than you had hoped.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And I think that’s everything I wanted to ask you today, Professor. Did you want to add anything else?

Jamie Kleppetsch: I just want to say that not passing the bar exam the first time does not define anybody as a lawyer. There are some really phenomenal lawyers out there who didn’t make it through the bar exam the first time, and it’s just a test. It’s a big test, but it’s just a test, and you are going to make it through. You are going to be a huge success and we look forward to celebrating you when you are.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Thank you so much for joining us, and listeners, thank you for joining us as well. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, signing off with the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.


Updated at 2:15 p.m. to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

<p>Jamie Kleppetsch</p>

Jamie Kleppetsch

Jamie Kleppetsch is an assistant professor and the associate director of the Academic Achievement Program at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She is the president of the Association of Academic Support Educators. She is also a member of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Academic Support board.

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