Aerial view of DC

The Virginia Bar Exam: How Much Studying Is Enough?

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice

One of my favorite episodes from the old T.V. show Taxi included the scene in which the Reverend Jim Ignatowski, the character played by Christopher Lloyd, accidentally burns down the apartment of Louie DePalma, the character played by Danny DeVito.  The Reverend’s father is a millionaire.  When the father finds out that his son has burned down the apartment, he writes out a blank check to DePalma and tells him to fill in whatever amount he believes is fair.

DePalma is left with an almost impossible decision to make:  How greedy can he be without causing the father to change his mind?  Finally, after much agonizing, DePalma arrives at an amount he believes will do the trick.  I can’t remember the exact amount but it was something like $242,100.02.  This amount, he concludes, allows him to squeeze every possible cent out of Jim’s father without causing the father to reconsider his generosity.

Satisfied with this number, DePalma calls the father and informs him of the carefully arrived at amount.  DePalma is then crushed when the father’s response is:  “Oh.  Is that all?  I thought it was going to be much more.”

I had a similar feeling while studying for the Virginia Bar over the past couple of months.  On the one hand, I wanted to pass the bar.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to spend a second longer studying for the bar than I needed to.

So how much is enough?  If I recall correctly from the first time I took the bar in Pennsylvania, BARBRI assures you that if you follow the recommended schedule and study for 8 hours a day for 10 weeks, for a total of 560 hours, you can be pretty confident that you will pass.  BARBRI refrains from saying:  Of course all that could change if you are either really smart or really dumb.

I wasn’t sure whether BARBRI was including the class time or not, but I assumed they were.  I clocked my hours, and ended up studying for a total of 450 hours over a 10 week period.  This amounted to an average of 6.5 hours a day.

I had no idea how many hours I should devote to studying for a second bar three or four years later.  But, taking the advice of my friend and colleague Christopher Guest, I bought some old BARBRI books and outlines off of Craigslist last fall and began studying a few hours a day shortly after Thanksgiving.

The multi-state material came right back to me.  Although I never thought I would ever have to learn Shelley’s Rule or the Rule of Worthier Title again after passing the Pennsylvania bar, I found that it was much easier to learn it a second time. And I enjoyed working through the practice multiple questions, particularly at times when I was too tired to do anything more intellectually taxing.

But I did struggle with the state-specific materials for the Virginia portion of the exam.  As I mentioned earlier, I never took secured transactions, commercial paper, or creditors’ rights in law school and those topics were not on the Pennsylvania bar, so I had to learn all of those topics from scratch.  And Virginia civil procedure and local governments are so boring, they make me glad I decided to become a criminal defense lawyer.

While I didn’t clock my hours as carefully as I had done the first time, I estimate that I studied for about 250 hours.  In hindsight, I think this was too much for a person taking a second bar.  The bar examiners throw a wide net but they don’t go too deep.   All you really needed to know on civil procedure, for example, were the basics:  personal jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction, and supplemental jurisdiction.  And, despite all of the very detailed information on local governments in the BARBRI materials, all you really needed to know on that topic was whether or not a city, town, or county in Virginia is immune from tort liability.  In the few instances in which the bar examiners did go a little deeper, the more detailed questions tended to be asked as sub-questions.  You could miss the sub-question entirely as long as you were able to make up the points elsewhere.

That said, of course, it is always better to be safe than sorry, and this was the thought that kept me studying long after I had tired of it.  Who needs the humiliation of failing the bar? Who needs the hassle of going through the whole thing again for the next bar?  We’ll see. The Board of Bar Examiners has promised to release the February 2010 results by April 23, 2010.  Just enough time to sign up for the July 2010 bar.

More like this:

Preparing for the Virginia Bar Examination

Surviving the Virginia Bar Exam:  Reflections After Day One

Applying to Take the Maryland Out-of-State Lawyer’s Bar Exam