The Overwhelming Nature of Bar Prep

Here is what I shared with our bar students this week:


I once attended a “clickers” presentation delivered by Professor McNeal. In it, he cited a study done by Michael Hunter Schwartz on learning retention. I once had the chance to sit next to Professor Schwartz on an airplane, and I relished the opportunity to pick his brain. He is considered by many to be the leading expert on “learning” in the legal education community and is now the dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

This study claims that you remember 30% of what you “see” but 90% of what you “speak and do.” I’ll emphasize the “do” part more than the “speak” here, but the bottom line is that you remember much more from practice than from simply studying outlines. In the last few years, studies confirming this concept were published in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

You say, “I made it through law school without practicing that much!” True, but you are now asked to do something different, at least in one respect: You are asked to prepare for twelve finals at once (with admittedly less depth of knowledge required) instead of taking one at a time.

Think about it: It makes sense that the word that kept playing in my head when studying for the bar was “overwhelmed.” It makes sense because my normal way of studying could not conquer the bar like it could conquer a law school final – in fact, given my way to study, I should be overwhelmed.

Let me explain a little further:

My typical law school outline for a single course was about 25-pages. If I did that for the 12 bar subjects, then I would have to memorize about 300 pages of outlines for the bar!!! I could never do that (which is why I limited my normal outlines to 25 pages — that was about my limit). Let’s say I cut down all the bar subjects to bare-boned 10-15 page outlines so that I only included rules I needed to know, factors, etc. – that would still be 150 pages of outlines!!!

So, here is the good news. All the bar review companies know this is too much for rote memorization, which is why they design their program to have so much practice. Practice is the big dog in memorization world. You really do retain significantly more if you “do” than if you just “see” outlines and flash cards.

Now, an important caveat: Practice is only helpful if you spend quality time reviewing the practice tests to figure out what you did right and what you did wrong. That is when the learning/memorization takes place, and the learning/memorization that takes place in that review is simply more “sticky” than reviewing outlines and flash cards.


If it makes you feel better (and it did me), then create a little bit of extra “review” time where you approach studying a subject as you did in law school. You have permission!!! But don’t back off on the practice essays & MBEs. That is where you defeat the bar exam monster.

Hang in there, my friends. Reach out to me whenever.


Al Sturgeon
Dean of Students


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