by Brian Hahn
One of a bar taker’s greatest fears is memorization. You might often wonder:
- “How do I remember all the rules?”
- “When should I start memorizing?”
- “I keep forgetting everything when I switch to another subject!”
If you’re a first-timer, you’ve probably thought, “As long as I memorize this perfectly, I will be set for the bar exam.” Maybe. But that approach isn’t going to work for most people. One of the most common regrets repeating bar takers make is realizing that they got too obsessed with memorizing the law and neglected to practice applying the law.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t memorize. You should memorize!
It’s a minimum requirement, a cost of entry. So you do want to start memorizing as early as you can, but you don’t want to miss the forest for the trees.
Keep these three things in mind to avoid tunnel vision around memorization.
1. Don’t use “memorization” as a safe space
You may be thinking, “I need to know all the rules perfectly before I can solve problems!” Not necessarily. (Didn’t you have years in law school to “know the rules” by now.) You’re probably just procrastinating or acting out of fear.
The above line of thinking is common and normal. But once you know the truth, you can fix it. Mastering the bar exam requires that you master your ego and embrace the discomfort that comes with straining your mind. “Memorizing” is simply not enough.
Sure it hurts seeing that you missed a bunch of questions or issues, but failing the bar exam hurts more than struggling now.
2. Memorization happens as you use it and after you use it
There’s a reason you don’t remember 99% of your lectures. Use it or lose it. Sure, you do need “rote memorization” for any MBE subjects because not every testable topic has been tested before, or it’s hard to find every question that has tested every issue or rule. Not to mention that some MBE questions can test obscure rules and nuances.
But most of your bar intuition will come from seeing the patterns from previous exams and questions. Look to what’s been done before because the past will guide your future. For example, UWorld’s MBE QBank comes with over 1,900 questions, including over 1,300 of the latest past questions from the NCBE®, the test-makers themselves.
I recommend that you first try to solve problems (like MBE questions and essays) to understand how the issues and rules are used. Then, you can fill in the gaps by memorizing and understanding the rules and issues.
In other words, learn by example, not by theory.
Knowledge outside the context of fact patterns means nothing. It’s possible to have knowledge but lack judgment. Learning by example will enable you to extract the issues and rules you need from memory and, more importantly, recall your understanding of how to apply them.
3. Familiarity is not the same as mastery
Bar exam success requires remembering and using what you’ve memorized on the exam, not merely being familiar with the concepts. You must be able to recall (retrieve at appropriate times), not just memorize (encode into memory).
Mastery of the rules requires more than reading through an outline and saying, “Yeah, I know this.” You must repeatedly recall and attempt to recall the rules.
Below are five quick tips to help you memorize rules and recall them later:
- Test yourself through recall in real situations:
Use what you think you know. Solve problems and use the rules in context. Only applied knowledge sticks in mind. You do this all the time in real life when you remember the way to a new place, your social security number, a phone number, etc.
- Understand the concepts:
You don’t have to memorize every exact word in your outline as long as you can accurately say it in your own words. Understand to learn; memorization is a side effect of that!
- Encode the rules with trigger words:
How do public speakers give speeches back-to-back? Have they memorized the speech word for word? Maybe. But more often than not, they use notes with trigger words. Rather than recalling the entire speech, they try to remember bullet points or topics to talk about.
- Rote memorize:
Sometimes, you’ll still need to do this. For instance, you could ask yourself, “What’s needed for organizational standing?” Try to recite the answer. Don’t know it? Do your best. Then look it up. Keep testing yourself until you get it.
You will have trouble with some rules. Don’t stop testing yourself when you’re merely familiar with what you see; test yourself again in a few hours, the next day, in a few days, etc. (You can use UWorld’s spaced-repetition tool to help you with this.) The more you do it, the better you retain it.
- Shock yourself:
Make it sticky! It can be as personal, creative, wacky, strange, or cringe as you want. Amid the doldrums and tedium of the bar, it doesn’t matter if it makes you cringe or shocks you because anything that helps you memorize faster is useful. Maybe just don’t tell anyone about your weird memory device.
This is not necessary or feasible. And I won’t lie: Even if you memorize an entire outline, you will have to guess the rule at least a few times. You may see at least one question that you weren’t prepared for.
Moreover, although the bar examiners could technically test you on anything, they tend to test on a finite scope of bar law. Prioritize based on these categories:
- Rules and issues that have been tested in the past (which you can only find out by solving problems). This includes rules for related sub-issues, including nuances of each element of “big” rules, exceptions, defenses, related minor issues, etc.
- Other rules and issues that you think are important. You can tell because these issues and rules are familiar. Maybe you’ve seen them in law school.
- Fringe rules and issues that you don’t think are important or worth the time. Essays and particularly MBE questions may test obscure rules.
Notice I keep mentioning “issues” because it’s not just about knowing the rules.
Brian Hahn is the founder of Make This Your Last Time, where he teaches law graduates how to prepare for and pass the bar exam with a fresh take on bar preparation. He believes anyone can pass the bar with the right approach that caters to them, and he has helped thousands of readers pass the exam with his insightful materials. Visit Make This Your Last Time for more actionable tips, candid discussions, and resources for bar exam preparation.