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Whether you are a first-time or repeat examinee, the prospect of preparing and then performing on the California bar exam at a passing standard may seem for many to be one of life’s more challenging endeavors. As a three-day pressure-packed ritual – following the rigors of law school and the usual compressed period for bar review – the certainty of passing may still seem entirely too arbitrary. With this in mind, there are ten core factors regardless of your course of action in preparing for the exam that I hope you will find useful. They are distilled from having “worked in the trenches” with bar applicants for nearly 40 years.



This is fundamentally important because it has everything to do with understanding how to more precisely prepare for it. As a three-day, 18-hour exam, your key for passing will be to develop both the stamina and skill sufficient to solve written and multiple-choice questions under exacting, timed conditions. Beyond just learning the law (for the 14 – but really – now 17 subjects) this demands a practical emphasis in learning how to more competitively improve your essay, performance exam and MBE skills in order to upgrade your passing standards. If the Examiners wanted more candidates to pass the exam they would send you home with it – where “time” wasn’t a factor.



Given the nature of the bar as a strictly timed text, choose a course of preparation suitable to your specific test-taking needs (key word “your”). Many applicants do not – in generically selecting a “one-size fits all” approach where the review course (if one is taken), for example, dictates when you both start and finish your formal preparation. Everyone learns differently – and common-sensically – the percentage of passing applicants would be higher if more gave greater consideration to the time they needed to prepare and to the development of their more specific timed writing and objective test-taking needs. Put another way, if 90% of applicants engage in the usual generic approach, the statewide passing rate for the Spring Exam should be higher than ±40% or for ±60% who pass the Summer Exam. Until the champion racehorse Seabisquit learned how to run, he didn’t win many races.




Although there are many fine review programs to choose from, begin the investigative process early enough in making an informed decision suitable to your specific testing needs. Here are some basic questions: Will you benefit from an ultra-structured program, where literally every hour is programmed to assure its efficient and effective use? On an hour-to-hour basis, how will I manage my limited time and build the kind of necessary balance into my individual study program to both learn the law and practically prepare for each of the three sections of the test? Given my study time – and the volume of information for each subject – how will I ultimately memorize the law without under-investing my time in learning how to develop my writing and MBE skills? How will my written work be evaluated – If I get a simple grade and some descriptive comments on each practice essay or performance exam, how will I specifically learn those methodologies that will work (for me) to fix my difficulties? Are all “personal trainers” – tutorial programs – the same? Is a standard generic approach sufficient? What kind of personal access will I have to resolve my personal testing needs?



In many ways, this is near the top of the core list of factors most critical to pass the bar. And many applicants, in my opinion, do not. The “culture” of the bar review industry is well-ingrained and generally promotes an 8-10 week preparation approach. While sufficient for some, it isn’t for others – where the “time-management playing field” is seriously impacted by work, family, and other commitments – in addition to a host of substantive and other test-taking needs affecting different strengths and weaknesses with individual applicants. Taking more time to prepare can be the great equalizer.



 Given the “total available net study hours” you have to prepare for the exam, work to apportion it in a balanced way given the proportionate value of each of the three sections of the bar toward your final scaled score. Overall, this means that you proportionately spend about 40% of your time for the essay, 26% of your time for the performance exam, and about 34% of your time for the M BE. There is always some variation, of course, given the emphasis you need to individually bring to each of the three sections of the exam. As noted earlier, avoid just working hard in spending an inordinate amount of time on substantive review – and not enough in the development of your other writing and multi-state skills given the nature of the bar as a timed test. Remember that your goal is to achieve a total of 1,440 points – optimally accomplished by doing well on all three sections of the bar. In contrast, “maxing out” on any one area more rarely makes up for a poor showing on another.



Although substantive review is one of the cornerstones for successful results, remember that the bar as a problem-solving speed exam requires competent but comprehensive analysis – and not just the regurgitation of information. You will not want to take the exam with the law committed to memory – but without the necessary techniques or practical experience that will work to outpoint your competition. Here, passing is definitely in the details. And common test-taking difficulties such as running out of time, conclusory analysis, the failure to identify more nuanced layers of issues – are symptomatic of the failure to integrate other ingredients into a balanced study mix. With this in mind, add these ingredients – beyond substantive review – to your bar review: (1) Technique: Whether through a formal program or not, learn those precise techniques for each of the three sections of the exam that will competitively challenge and elevate your test-taking skills. (2) The Application of Technique to Practice: Apply the techniques that you learn through increased practice to progressively “build” your testing skills and which will ultimately produce consistent passing standards. (3) Qualitative Review: This requires developing your perspective regarding the passing standards needed for your written and multi-state practice. As well, this means every exercise is a two-step process: Do it, but also qualitatively review it. When you see, for example, a professional golfer sink a 30 foot putt – you probably didn’t see the 1,000 practice strokes he made in perfecting his stroke – or in benefitting from a review of each attempt. Again: Do it, review it.



Preparing to pass the bar is not a team sport – and so as important as your individual preparation to develop your skills and standards – are matters of the “heart and mind” in developing faith in yourself to succeed. These “intangible” factors are crucial in steadily building the self-assurance you will want to think and feel in actually performing on the exam. The pursuit of all great goals requires at least a little common sense: You must be sure to work hard, be disciplined, a good listener, and be willing to challenge old comfort zones that fail to adequately challenge your necessary passing standards in order to adopt new ones that will.Above all, however, be committed to pass the bar – and to do what it takes to do so – not just to take it.



All applicants, to some extent, will have a bad day – but the key is to learn to adapt to your difficulties, fine-tune your skills, and do the little things that over time will yield positive results. The bar is really a test of competence – not perfection – so learn to objectively work at developing the test-taking standards that will lead you to success and avoid the excesses that will compromise your effort to do so. Consult with others – those who have been there before you – in helping to shape your healthy perspective about what it takes to put the bar behind you. And by the way, this includes those who may have passed with their first effort – and d3efinitely from those who did not.



 I have probably stated this in a number of ways before – but just to put the exclamation point on the idea – study smart. Yes, this means bringing balance to your preparation given the three sections of the exam, but work at translating this into a practical strategy based on your specific “net available study hours.” There is actually a formula for doing this – but in a nutshell this will afford you a better understanding of the “Real Concentration Time” (RCS) you will have to pass the test. This is crucial in knowing how many practice problems you will have time to do – in addition to configuring them in a strategy that will interdiscipline both your substantive and practical writing and MBE skills. It will also help you to reduce your anxiety – which is often the result of arbitrarily creating unreasonable goals not directly tied to your RCS.



Gotta be. If your goal is to, figuratively, climb Mt. Everest – take no half-measures in understanding and committing to a day-to-day review regimen that will get you up the mountain. Understand your adversary, train appropriately, and be gently relentless as you work to reach the summit. In choosing to become a lawyer, you have chosen a road less traveled, but one well worth the investment in your time. Again, great goals require great effort.


I hope that your consideration of these ten factors adds to your informed perspective of what it takes to put the bar behind you. In another part of my life – having led four expeditions to Mt. Everest – I know that climbing to the summit of the planet requires knowing the mountain at all of its levels and then identifying and through experience perfecting all of the skills necessary to get the job done. Whatever your course of action, all the very best in “closing the circle” to put your bar behind you.


Have faith – you will do it!

Paul Pfau © 2011 All Rights Reserved

Paul Pfau is a retired Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and the owner of Cal Bar Tutorial Review, which has been customizing bar review programs for 40 years. For more information about Cal Bar Tutorial Review, call (800) 348-2401 or (800) 783-6168. Web site:


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CA Bar Exam Facts

Statewide Test Results

First Time Takers
about 57.2% Fail 

Repeat Takers
about 77.1% Fail

All Takers
about 70.9% Fail

about 80.7% Fail

Still not sure you need help? View the full report.

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CA Bar Exam Schedule

First Year Law Students

  • June 25, 2019
    Register by 5/15/2019

California Bar Exam

  • Feb 26, 27, 2019
    Register by 1/15/2019

Course Discounts

Note : This is our
40th Anniversary Year 
Also, there are accompanying discount opportunities because of this.

 Cal Bar’s “Pay It Forward” discount policy enables you to discount the cost of your individualized program if you have charitable experience in your background.

If you have no charitable experience, you may still qualify for a $1,000 discount from your totally personalized program – which includes old-fashioned one-on-one, materials, classes. Just ask.

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More Success For Ali

Cal Bar is pleased to announce that Ali Hinsche continued her remarkable run of success in having just passed the Florida bar exam.

This was her 4th (count 'em: 1, 2, 3, 4) successful bar - on her 1st attempt-following California, New York and Illinois.

While Ali worked with Cal Bar for each state, she also owes her success to persistence, hard work, and in learning how to adapt and apply the Cal Bar test-taking systems to the requirements of each bar exam.

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