Should I Memorize Black Letter Law For The Bar Exam?
Many students struggle with balancing their study time between memorizing black letter law and working through practice questions. In fact, some students mistakenly believe that they will memorize black letter law most effectively by passively reading through highly-detailed outlines and doing hundreds or thousands of practice questions. The large commercial bar preparation companies do little to dispel this belief, with some going so far as to actively discourage students from spending time memorizing the law.
Should I Memorize Black Letter Law For The Bar Exam?
First, let’s understand why memorizing rules is important. Imagine that you’re learning how to play golf. Would you immediately begin with hours of practice on the driving range when you haven’t even taken the time to understand the golf swing and learn the proper form? Practice is necessary, but if you go into it without a solid foundation, your practice isn’t doing very much—and can even be harmful.
The same reasoning applies to bar exam preparation. Working through questions is an excellent study tool. However, you need to know the rules that the questions are testing if you are going to get the most out of your practice sessions. On the MBE, for example, a question will rarely ask about a general principle of law. For a torts question, it is likely going to address a specific topic (i.e., negligence) and a specific concept within that topic (i.e., proximate causation) in a very specific scenario (i.e., a reasonably foreseeable intervening, superseding cause). Now, if you don’t have a firm understanding and knowledge of the relevant rules at the outset, it’s going to be pretty difficult to reason your way through a question based on general principles alone.
Strictly memorizing the rules isn’t enough. You also need to organize the information in your brain so that you know where each rule fits into the broader subject. Knowing the specific rule for what constitutes an intervening superseding cause is great, yet if you don’t know when to apply it and why it’s important, that knowledge is pretty useless.
Memorizing black letter law for the bar exam
So, now that we know that memorization is a must, the question becomes: what is the best way to go about this less-than-enjoyable task? After all, law students do very little memorization during law school, where professors frequently administer open-outline or take-home exams.
Here’s where to start: follow a lecture. It might be helpful to actively review your lecture notes and pare them down to the essentials. You may want to convert your notes into your own abbreviated outline. You can use one provided by your bar preparation course. To do this, it’s also useful to know what type of learning style you have so that you can be the most effective in memorizing the legal principles and rules.
Tackle each topic one at a time. If you are studying a torts outline, work on memorizing negligence, then intentional torts, then products liability, then premises liability (or whichever order you choose).
Within each sub-topic, break it down and tackle each concept one at a time. What are the elements of negligence? How do you determine if a duty exists? What is a breach? Causation? You get the idea.
You’ll know that you’re ready to move on when you feel comfortable explaining a topic and its key concepts and rules to another person without looking at your notes. Talk out loud if you have to—whatever it takes for you to internalize the material and make it your own.
This process can take several hours. However, it’ll leave you with a rock-solid understanding of the subject. You’ll be better equipped to take on those practice questions.
We don’t mean to suggest that this is a one size fits all approach, by the way. If you try a different approach that works for you, go with that. The point is to have a firm grasp on the rules so that you can recite them unaided. Armed with this, you can then confidently apply the rules to the fact pattern of an MBE or MEE question.
Check out our post on more bar exam memorization tips.
Balancing studying with practice questions
There’s also no hard and fast rule for how much time you should spend on memorization. Early on in your bar prep, you may want to spend 40% of your time on lectures, 30% of your time on studying and memorizing, and 30% of your time on practice questions. However, as the lectures dwindle down, you might want to spend closer to 40-50% of your time studying and memorizing, and the remaining 50-60% of your time on working practice questions.
Further, if you make a genuine effort to internalize the major concepts within each subject as you learn them, you’ll be able to spend less time on memorization and more time on practice as the exam approaches. For example, if a four-hour lecture covers intentional torts and general negligence principles, then you might want to spend the next two to three hours studying and memorizing the black letter law that you learned during the lecture. Then, you can spend the remainder of the day working through practice multiple choice and/or essay questions that test the material you just internalized. Your performance on those practice questions can then drive your future studying—i.e., if your weak point was assault and battery questions, you know that’s an area you need to spend more time on with both memorization and practice.
At the end of the day, your objective should be to find what works for you. However, try to avoid the trap of blindly tackling practice questions without having studied and memorized the law beforehand. When you study and memorize first, you’ll get more out of the questions during your practice. This will ultimately help you get more points during the exam.
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