I graduated from law school in May of 2009, and took the July 2009 Illinois bar exam.  I passed, and thought I would share my study approach in case that information is of use to other bar exam takers:

My bar study course

I signed up for the BarBri bar review course in Chicago,with the intention of taking the standard 2 month long in-person course that runs from the time law school ends and the bar exam is given.  Then, I was offered and accepted the job that I really wanted – at a legal office about 150 miles from Chicago.  The catch was that they wanted me to start the week after law school graduation, which meant that I had to move and then work full time during the month of June – while many of my peers were staying in Chicago and studying for the bar exam full time.  Further complicating matters, the nearest BarBri class was over 100 miles away from my new home, making it impossible for me to attend the evening bar study classes in-person.  However, I was given 3 weeks off in July to study full time.

Given the fact that I would have to work full time for all but the last 3 weeks before the bar exam, I decided to take the BarBri self study course.  For an extra $1,200 or so, BarBri loads the audio from their lectures onto an iPod, and send that iPod and the books to the student’s home.  The student can then study on their own schedule, listening to the lectures and reviewing the materials in the books.  Software to practice multiple choice questions are also provided.  About $500 of that extra $1,200 is refunded when the student returns the iPod, after the bar exam.

My study approach

The first thing I did, about 60 days before the bar exam, was to plan out my study schedule in full.  I used the BarBri “paced program” suggested schedule as a guide, and customized it to reflect the fact that I would be moving and then working 9.5 hour days for the first 5 weeks, then studying full time for the last 3 weeks.

An example part-time study day for me would involve waking up, exercising for 35 minutes, going to work, coming home, reading the lecture outline for 35 minutes, listening to about 2 hours worth of the lectures, spending 30 minutes doing a practice essay, spending 15 minutes grading that practice essay, spending 30 minutes doing multiple choice questions, and spending 30 minutes reviewing my notes from the day.  I would then eat dinner and spend some time with my fiancé before going to sleep.  I averaged about 5 hours a day of sleep during this time.

An example full-time study day for me would involve waking up, reading the lecture outline for 1 hour, exercising for 45 minutes, listening to about 3 hours worth of lectures, eating lunch (I’m not really a breakfast person anyway), spending 1 hour doing 2 essays and then 30 minutes grading those two essays, listening to another 2 hours of lectures, and doing 2 hours of multiple choice questions.  Then I would eat dinner, review my lecture notes from the day, skim the lecture outlines for the next day, and spend some time with my fiancé before going to sleep.

On a few occasions, I spent a few hours of the day relaxing.  I went to a jazz festival one day, and went to the movies another day.  I even bought a new rifle, and took it to the shooting range with my fiancé, which was a nice change of pace from bar study.  I also met a couple of coworkers for lunch on two occasions.  But I only took breaks when I was ahead of schedule.

Staying on track

Studying for the bar exam is boring, monotonous, tiring, and generally unpleasant.  I’m a person who enjoys learning, and generally enjoyed law school.  However bar study is nothing like law school, and loving to learn will not make the bar exam study process enjoyable.  Instead, bar study simply consists of cramming black letter law into one’s brain, glossing over the intricacies.  That is because the bar exam tests many areas of law and asks only superficial questions, to which the bar exam taker must respond with a superficial answer.

This sort of tedious studying for two months isn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination.  Some bar exam takers apparently find it difficult to stay focused – however I had no problem staying motivated and on schedule, thanks to one simple thing: Fear.  Whenever I felt like slacking off, I just took a minute to envision myself failing the bar exam, and having to tell my coworkers that I had failed.  I imagined what it would be like to walk into my boss’ office and tell her that I was in the 8% or so of bar exam takers who hadn’t managed to pass.  I then imagined the prospect of losing my dream job, at a time when the economy is at its worst in a generation.  Then I thought what it would be like to tell my fiancé and other loved ones that I had failed the bar exam.  Next, I thought about the cost of re-taking the bar exam, which would include paying for another bar review class, paying to register for the exam again, taking time off of work to study, paying for a hotel near the bar exam location, etc.  After letting those thoughts bounce around my head for a few seconds, I was highly motivated to resume studying.


The bar exam is essentially just a test of one’s willingness to memorize black letter law for 2 months, and to then mechanistically apply that memorized law to essay and multiple choice questions during a 2 day long test.  So long as you study diligently and don’t panic during the test, chances are that you’ll do fine.