As a recent survivor of the July administration of the bar exam, I have two ideas to improve the test. Part I explored the way the test is administered. Part II examines the content of the exam. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
For me, the hardest part about preparing for the bar exam was learning all the topics covered on my jurisdiction's "local day." Under the enthusiastic tutelage of BARBRI's instructors, I learned constitutional law, penal law, contracts, worker's compensation, future interests, Article 9 (secured) transactions, commercial paper, agency, partnership, conflict of laws, domestic relations, wills, and a dozen other areas of law.
Although I'd taken a course in only a few of these fields in law school, I gradually began to understand the contours of each area of law during my eight week summer course. And then I memorized elements of causes of action and affirmative defenses, standards, and related minutiae.
I used flash cards and ANKI. I read my outlines and my friends' outlines. I played with BARBRI's proprietary AMP software. I read sample answers which incorporated relevant law. I tested my knowledge against my study buddies'. I worked with mnemonics and wrote songs and poems.
In short, I lived and breathed all the laws.
By the day of the test, and without exaggeration, I had a superficial understanding of literally hundreds of odd laws. Without consulting notes, I could tell you the differences between the degrees of larceny, describe the elements of a validly executed Will, tell you whether someone who held a negotiable instrument was a holder in due course, and myriad other legal things.
My understanding was an inch deep, but a mile wide.
I would never do this in practice. When I'm admitted and tackling a client question, I will consult authorities which will tell me exactly what the rules are. My task will be to apply those rules to the specific client's situation and directions. And I won't have only forty minutes to craft my answer. My client will expect me to cite my jurisdiction's law, not roughly approximate it from memory.
Of course, the bar exam is a test. It's an activity designed to evaluate applicants' ability to juggle new facts with old law and answer a close question. It is not designed to be just like practice. It tests motivation and willingness to invest time into memorization as much as it measures lawyer skills.
So why does the bar cover so few of the advertised areas of law?
My bar exam had five essays. They addressed domestic relations, corporations, criminal law, torts, and Wills, respectively. That's only five of the thirty-odd legal topics that BARBRI advised might be on the exam. And although I knew these topics fine, I invested a lot of energy into memorizing law in over twenty topic areas that were never tested. As a result, I left the exam with a lot of carefully prepared ammunition unfired.
Someone who prepared less, but lucked out on the topic areas to be tested could have written better essays and better concentrated her time memorizing.
It's frustrating to invest so much into an exam that doesn't really reward that preparation.
Although the bar examiners make a frequency chart available which provides notice of how often each topic is tested, these data are backward-looking and there is no good way for a candidate to know what will be tested in his administration. And you don't want to be caught flat footed with an essay topic on which you have no basic understanding.
I think a better approach would be to give candidates several shorter essays. Say ten essays to be written in twenty minutes each. Structured this way, the exam would cover more areas of law and passage would be less dependent on properly guessing the topic to be tested.
And candidates wouldn't feel like their preparation was so inefficient.
If you want candidates to learn the law wide and shallow, test the material that way. Don't leave over 80% of the material untested.