Memorize Black Letter Law

How To Memorize Black Letter Law For The Bar Exam

Memorizing black letter law is a critical component of bar exam preparation.  The bar exam, after all, tests many subjects—each with their own concepts and detailed legal rules.  For example, the UBE has the potential to test 16 different subjects. Likewise, the Michigan bar exam has the potential to test 24 subjects.  If you don’t have a firm grasp of the countless legal rules within those subjects, you won’t be able to confidently attack questions on the MBE and essay portion.  And you need confidence on the bar exam!

Despite the importance of memorizing black letter law, many commercial bar prep companies dedicate little, if any, time to the task.  What’s more, these companies often recommend that students read outlines repeatedly as a way of learning and memorizing the law—a fairly inefficient process.  In this post, we’ll explain how to effectively memorize black letter law for the bar exam.

How To Memorize Black Letter Law For The Bar Exam

Learn and understand the law

First and foremost, you must learn and understand the law.  For each subject, you should be sure to watch the lectures, take notes, and review outlines.  Use these materials to learn each subject and its major topics, sub-topics, and legal rules.  You should also take the time to understand when the rules apply and how they work in theory.  When you think you understand the rules pretty well in theory, you should then work through a limited number of practice questions—untimed and with the rules in front of you—so that you can get an idea of how the rules work in the context of the bar exam.

Check out our additional tips on How to Memorize Bar Exam Outlines.

Organize each subject in your mind

Once you’re comfortable with the legal concepts and rules for a particular subject, it’s time to start memorizing.  Let’s say you’re studying contracts. You don’t want to simply start memorizing all of the rules in contracts. Without an organized framework in which to place those rules, all that memorizing will be for not. You should instead begin with organizing the subject into its major topics and sub-topics.

For example, some of the major topics in contracts are mutual assent, consideration, and the statute of frauds—among many others. If you decide to focus particularly on mutual assent, you should break that topic down into sub-topics like offer and acceptance. Then you can memorize the rule for what constitutes an offer, the rule for what constitutes and acceptance, and so on.

Memorize the specific rules with active techniques

Let’s continue with the contracts example.  If you’re studying the rule for what constitutes an offer, you should follow the following steps:

(1)  Read the rule once or twice through.  If it helps, you can read the rule out loud or write it out on paper.

(2)  Cover the rule so that you can’t see it anymore.

(3)  Try to recite the rule out loud or try to write it out on paper.  If you find yourself struggling to recall all of the elements, don’t immediately return to your notes—keep trying to remember the rule!  This is an active study technique that is significantly more effective than passively reading the rule over and over again.

(4)  Repeat this process multiple times as necessary until you reach a point where you can recite the rule confidently without looking at your notes.

(5)  Internalize the rule and make it your own.  Use visualization, pneumonics, or whichever techniques help to solidify the rule in your mind.

Work with practice questions to sharpen your knowledge of the rules

After you’ve memorized the rules within a subject’s topic and/or sub-topic, it’s time to apply your knowledge by working through practice questions without looking at the rules.  Practice questions—whether MBE or essay—give you an opportunity to see how the bar examiners test a particular set of rules.  As you work through more and more questions, you’ll see many different iterations for how those rules are tested, and you’ll likely see patterns emerge in terms of which aspects of a rule the bar examiners tend to focus on most.  The process of working through questions will sharpen and refine your knowledge of the rules and help you develop a “feel” for how they operate in different factual scenarios.

Practice questions will also help you identify gaps or weak areas in your knowledge.  If you find yourself struggling with questions that test a particularly complicated rule, you’ll know that you need to spend some more time solidifying your understanding and knowledge of that rule before returning to more questions.

The Big Picture

Don’t fall into the trap of passively reading outlines over and over in an attempt to memorize black letter law—this is not effective. Rather, memorizing black letter law for the bar exam should be an active process.  First, make sure that you understand how the rules work.  Second, take the time to commit the rules to memory using the active study techniques described above.  Third, use practice questions to sharpen and refine your knowledge of the rules and to guide future studies.  If you follow these steps, you’ll be able to attack the bar exam with a solid understanding of each subject and a firm command of their topics, sub-topics, and legal rules.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our post discussing why you should memorize the black letter law and how much time you should spend doing so.

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