A Tale of Two Bar Exams

Posted by Kathleen Moxley
Kathleen Moxley
Hi, I'm a 3L Dual JD student, originally from Ottawa and now living in Windsor
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on Monday, 12 August 2013
in Student Blogs

The best laid plans of mice and men.....well you likely know the rest. Unfortunately my plan to continue blogging during the bar hit a few road blocks of its’ own. My plan for this post is to basically walk you through my study period, give you some general information on the bar process and address some of the pros and cons of writing in two jurisdictions. I also apologize in advance if this post has more typo's and spelling issues than normal. I just installed a new hard drive on my laptop and the Office software isn't at the cottage to reload - so no spell or grammar check for this one.

Basically my summer so far has looked something like this:

Last week of April - Mad dash to pack, clean my house and move out. Ontario Bar materials show up at my parents’ house.

First week of May - Stay with a friend and laze around while getting a little bit of work done to wrap up my clinic work and other errands before graduation.

May 6th - New York Bar review program opens. Studying begins along with some more work and socializing.

May 9th & 10th - Baccalaureate (Graduation Mass) and Commencement ceremony.

May 11th - Time for the 9 hour drive home, and to start studying for the Ontario bar.

June 4th & June 18th - Ontario Bar Exam days.

June 19-July 1st - Volunteered with the Ottawa Fringe Festival as a post exam break.

July 2nd - Moved up to the cottage and resumed American Bar prep.

July 30th & 31st - New York Bar Exam days.

While at first glance this may not seem too bad, it's been pretty hectic.

Both Bars?

I originally wasn't sure if I wanted to write both the American and Canadian bars "back-to-back." The Ontario exams are offered three times a year (June, November, March) and are set 2 weeks apart on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, while the US exams are offered twice a year (July, February) and are generally the last Tuesday and Wednesday or Wednesday and Thursday of the month.  Therefore you get some selection as to when you sit each set of exams. Students planning to write both in the same year sometimes delay writing Ontario until November in order to focus on an American bar in July. While writing in February and March would be practically impossible (you would have less than one week between the American and Ontario bars), writing in June and July actually gives you a full 6 weeks between the exams most years. That being said the absolute minimum recommended period of studying for the American bar exams is 8 weeks with most programs encouraging you to spend 12 weeks or more.

Before committing to doing both exams I spent some time talking to people who had written both. The general consensus was that it is possible, but there is no room for error on it. You need to be ready and committed to putting in the work, all day, every day. This pretty much resembles the advice you get about trying to pass either individual bar exam, "The people who studied hard pass."  I would personally offer slightly different advice.  a) It really is a lot of work to write an American bar, like-14 hour days, one day off a week, for 8-10 weeks -lot of work.  And b) After graduation and again after finishing one bar, it's really hard to keep up the study schedule when real life starts happening and all your friends are celebrating or vacationing. Lastly, in terms of deciding whether to write both at once I would tell people to consider how soon they need to be called, what their own study style is, how stressed they get over exams/ the feeling of not being quite prepared, what other responsibilities they have and if they will be working during the bar review period.  I tend to procrastinate when I have too much time to do something or other have responsibilities I can work towards instead. I'm also not working yet, have relatively low exam stress and don't have kids or a house to look after. Therefore getting both exams done, under a bit of a time crunch and while I had nothing else going on was the right choice for me.

I am pleased to announce I passed both exams of the Ontario Bar exam.

The process in Ontario starts in fall of third year when you initially apply as a licensing candidate to the Law Society of Upper Canada. Upper Canada is the name Ontario went by prior to confederation. The main components of becoming licensed in Ontario are: 1. a Canadian law degree or having passed the equivalency exams, 2. the application including character and fitness type questionnaire, 3. the bar exams (Barrister's and Solicitor's), and 4. a 10 month period of articling. The articling is like an internship, during which you must complete certain criteria set out by the law society under the supervision of a principal licensed by the society. Once you complete that you are "Called".

Unlike most (if not all) American bars the Ontario exam is open book. Like the states, each province sets its’ own requirements and exam for admission. The Ontario exam is also much more expensive than most of the states (about $2500), but comes with all your study materials. The study materials come in one box about the size of a ream of paper. You have the option of picking it up directly from the law society in Toronto or having it shipped to you. The materials become available on a set date at the end of April.

Once you get the materials the race is on. The Ontario exams are all multiple choice with about 200 questions per day written over two 7 hour days, 14 days apart. The most common study strategy is to index.  Indexing generally involves getting a copy of a previous year's examinee's index in its’ chapter by chapter form. These are either passed on through good will or a quick google will find you one for about 200$. People then form "indexing groups" and divide up the chapters. Each person then updates the page numbers for all the terms in their assigned chapters. The group then reconvenes, and mixes all the terms from the chapters together to create one master alphabetized index for the materials. The end product is generally about 40 pages and all of the time up to the exam is used to compile it. It's also recommended you read the whole thing through once, although many people likely don't manage to do so and rely purely on the indexing.

To Index or not to Index, that is the question.

I'm not a huge fan of relying on indexes for tests. Throughout law school I wrote a number of open book exams and so long as I'd read the material I found I normally checked the index for one or two items at most. The other key point to this is that indexing is a semi-new thing for the Ontario bar and the materials given out by the law society have evolved during this time. For example they didn't used to contain a table of contents or page numbers. The current version however has all 1800 or so pages numbered and a 40-ish page, highly detailed table of contents. I'm also not a big fan of group studying, so I was really hesitant to commit to indexing.

I decided the best answer would be to find someone who didn't index and ask them about their experience. The problem is these people don't exist. EVERYONE indexes. After asking numerous advisors and profs and a few previous bar writers, the best advice I'd found was to do what works best for me...but generally people find indexing helps. 

I, along with another friend from law school both chose not to index. We both passed. There were a few questions which I struggled to locate exactly what I wanted and for which indexing probably would have helped. That being said, many of the people outside the exam crying, or who didn't finish all the questions indexed. Overall, I have to stick with the do what works for you. Indexing won't hurt, but whether you want to invest the time and effort into it is ultimately up to you. You can pass without indexing or fail with it, there is no magic answer on this one.

**side note: One of the most common comments I get talking to people about this is that '"there must be a program that will index the PDF version of it for you." I didn't hunt for one, but one probably exists and if you're writing I would recommend spending at least half a day doing a search for such a program. If you can index in a couple days with some digital help that's probably the best solution of all.

The exam itself was relatively smooth. Ontario releases very little information about the bar exams, so you largely go in with very little idea of what to expect. They don't release an official scoring or pass formula, and the number of sample questions is extremely limited so you never get the feel for what the whole day feels like or how the fatigue will affect you. The most you can really do is bring a time sheet to remind you to stay on pace. It does however have the benefit that every answer is word for word in the materials. If it's not in the materials they will not test on it. With a ctrl+F function you could probably do a whole day in 3 hours. Also good to know is that people tend to write in Toronto or close to their law school. As such if you write in one of the other test centers expect everyone to be hanging out in their cliques from school. With regards to the size of the testing centers Ottawa had just under 350 people writing.

The key thing to remember about the Ontario bar is that it's a test of your ability to quickly locate information, not of your actual knowledge or application skills. It's also never going to feel good. Your best bet is to remember that most people pass, and worst case you only need to re-write the day you fail, not both. Overall it winds up feeling pretty luck of the draw so try not to get too stressed and put it out of your mind until the results arrive at the end of July or in early August.

New York, New York
I chose to write the New York bar. Living in Eastern Ontario it's my closest state, and it's also a good choice for corporate international law as many corporations are incorporated there. The other perk is that it's generally accepted by other states for admission, while New York accepts very few other states. Because of those reasons New York is an attractive choice for a lot of Dual JD students or people looking to write an American bar but who don't have a work requirement to do a specific state yet. Otherwise people generally write the state in which they plan to practice.

Even the prospect of telling you about the New York Bar review seems daunting right now. I honestly never want to see it again. I have not worked as hard as I did while studying for the New York bar since middle school. I realize that for most people that doesn't sound too scary, but a quick look at middle school me should add some clarity. I skied competitively, got good grades, sat on student and athletic councils, was a cheerleader and did improv and swam. Getting home around 8 on a Sunday night and starting a major project due the next morning was not uncommon and frequently meant staying up until well after midnight and getting up again at 5 am to finish it. Failure simply was not an option, and with days off school to ski any slip meant a risk of losing my favourite passtime.

But I digress. My serious studying for the New York Bar started just after Canada Day. Prior to this I'd done a little bit of reading and watched a couple lectures but not much serious work. I know rationally that I needed the break before jumping into the Ontario materials and again after the Ontario exams were done, but I would have given anything to have those days back as the bar approached. It doesn't matter how smart you are or how good at studying you are, you need the time to learn all the materials. There is just so much to get through.

To jump back to the basics, the New York bar is 2 days, day one is state specific, day two is the MBE (Multistate Bar Exam). The MBE is 200 multiple choice questions of general law designed to be used in multiple states and covering specific set topics such as torts, contract, criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, constitutional law and one or two others.  In Michigan the state specific section is all essays, but in New York the day is split into 5 essay questions, 50 state multiple choice and the MPT (Multistate Performance Test). The state specific also covers a much broader range as any New York law is potentially on the test. The American bar exams are not done off set books or materials so it's likely there will be at least one or two questions your studying will not have covered.

New York is also backwards to most states in that you do the bar exam first. Then if you pass you do the character and fitness requirements and the rest of the steps in the call process. You also don't need to register for the exam until sometime around April. People attending law school in other common law jurisdictions can also write New York without any type of equivalency.

Review Course?

You are not required to take a bar prep course but I can't even imagine writing an American bar without one. There is simply no way you could read, sort through and absorb that much material in the applicable length of time without one. A prep course gives you a time line and summarized review materials which are invaluable for studying. The only word of caution is that in an effort to be complete they do give you a lot of material and have a lot of review, and practice sessions built in. This is wonderful for learning all the materials but very few people actually have the time to fully complete the course so be prepared that you may not get through all the recommended elements. Also don't be fooled by the cost differences. I did the cheapest of the "Big 3" of bar reviews and if anything found only positive differences compared to my friends who opted for the pricier options.

The exam day itself was pretty relaxed. It's actually nice knowing that once you start the exam the studying is over, a minor victory in itself. Also because people come from all over to write the New York bar it is less prone to the law school cliques which are common at the Ontario bar sessions. I wrote in New York City as my aunt and uncle live there. New York assigns people to test centers based on address in the state and then allows out of state writers to select from remaining test centers about a month before the exam. My test center alone had just over 6000 examinees.

My biggest tips for the New York or other American bars are to start studying at full intensity as soon as possible, and then not to panic when you don't remember anything. There is so much information that you never actually end up feeling like you've learned any of it. Just remember everyone else is in the same situation and use your formatting tricks to get as many points as possible out of what you do know. Beyond that plan where you'll be getting lunch ahead of time, take a deep breath and it should go alright.

The results for New York don't come out until November so up until then you may have to take my advice on it with a grain of salt.

The last item I want to touch on with regard to bar exams is the results process.  This year the Ontario results were released between day one and day two of the New York bar. LSUC sends a message to each candidate indicating your results so you get to find out privately. They also don't seem to publish a list or pass rates. This creates a bit of an awkward dance around finding out if your friends passed. Courtesy says go ahead and announce your results and then beyond that don't ask.

The Ontario exams are widely billed as "don't worry everyone passes." However a quick google will show you that this isn't true and that the solicitor's exam seems to be the tougher of the two. They also definitely don't feel too easy writing them. On the bright side, failure seems to be widely acknowledged as a fluke and most people pass the second time around with no issues.

This will likely be my last post for a while but I will try and get an update posted late in the fall once I get my New York results and have my new legal life all figured out. In the meantime if you have any questions please feel free to email or leave me a comment.


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About the author

Kathleen Moxley

I'm a 3L Dual JD student, originally from Ottawa and now living in Windsor. I did my undergraduate degree in Political Studies with a minor in Psychology from Queen's University, Kingston. I love to ski and generally just get outside and explore new things. You can contact me at moxleyka@udmercy.edu.