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Advice for the Bar Examinee (2015 ed.)

by: PROF. MANUEL R. RIGUERA

As a law professor, bar reviewer, and bar exam coach, I’ve put together some advice and tips for those about to sit for the bar examination.   I hope that they will prove of some help to the examinee who aspires to hurdle one of the toughest bar examinations in the planet.     

 

BEFORE THE BAR EXAM

 

READ MATERIALS ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND PASS THE BAR EXAM.   The bar exam is not a matter to take lightly.  Hence reading materials on how to prepare for and to pass the bar will greatly increase your chances of seeing your name inscribed in the bar exam hall of fame.  You can bring these materials as light reading to your three-day vacation after law school graduation.    When I prepared for the 1991 bar, I read a well-worn pamphlet by Prof. Jose Nolledo, Pointers for a Bar Candidate (1960).  I also read a booklet by Commissioner Regalado Maambong on the bar examination.   The two booklets served me well by giving practical advice on how to prepare for the bar and how to avoid costly mistakes during the preparation and the actual taking of the bar.   Unfortunately it seems both booklets are out of print.  

 

Bar Blues (Central Books 2013)written by Tanya Karina Lat, Maria Gracia Gamez, and Marilyn Manait is one good book on bar exam preparation which I highly recommend, comprehensive yet very readable.  Slaying the Bar Exam Dragon by Dean Rufus Rodriguez is another book which I would advise you to read.

 

Dean Wenceslao Laureta’s Secrets on How to Pass the Bar Examination (Rex Book Store, 1990)is a classic in the field of bar exam strategies and tactics.  It is somewhat a ponderous or even tedious read, replete with strong opinions and side-comments which the reader may not agree with.  Nonetheless there are valuable gems among the plethora of obiter dicta.  In particular I recommend the chapters on Types of Bar Questions, How to Tackle Bar Questions, and Brass Tacks.   I particularly commend the book to law professors and bar exam coaches and mentors.             

 

PREPARE AND ORGANIZE YOUR REVIEW MATERIALS.  Prepare your list of reviewers after your graduation and buy those that you do not have.  Get the opinion of professors and last year’s bar examinees as they are the best judges of law reviewers and can give you the pros and cons of a particular reviewer. 

 

As for the copious annotations or commentaries that you used as textbooks during your first three years in law school, consult them only if you need examples or illustrations of particular legal provisions.  This is an area where annotations or commentaries have an advantage over most reviewers which tend to put too much emphasis on rules without giving the underlying fact pattern for such rule.  

 

In this regard, I strongly advise the use of reviewers which are in Q&A form or which give examples or illustrations of the rules.   This reviewers will serve the dual purpose of being a review material as well as a training material for answering the bar which is substantially made up of problem-type or fact-based questions. 

 

PREPARE A BAR REVIEW SCHEDULE.  A bar-review schedule is your road-map to navigating the six months of bar review.  When you are enrolled in a bar review center, synchronize your schedule with the bar review center’s schedule otherwise you will not be reviewing effectively.  In this regard, choose a bar review center wherein there is a topical continuity in the schedule, that is, where one particular bar exam subject is discussed at a time before proceeding to another bar exam subject.  Avoid bar review centers with a hodgepodge schedule where for example, negotiable instruments is discussed on one day, then labor relations on the next, and then civil procedure on the day after. 

 

My advice is that you study one bar exam subject before going to another.  Some advise reviewing one subject in the first half of the day (say remedial law) and then another (say commercial law) in the second half of the day.  The avowed purpose is to avoid ennui.  I think this sacrifices focus and effectiveness just to add variety.   One must simply have the self-discipline and drive to study one bar subject at a time.

 

A rule of thumb in dividing your study time is to multiply the number of days available for review with the weight given to a particular bar examination subject.  Assume that you have 130 days allocated for your review (April to August excluding Sundays).  Political law has a weight of 15%.   130 days multiplied by 15% will give you 19 days.   So you allocate 19 days more or less for political law. 

 

In your review schedule, the last bar subjects that you should study should be labor law and then political law (the so-called “mirror schedule).  This will enhance the effectiveness of your review since political law and labor law are the bar exam subjects you will tackle on the first Sunday.     

 

In your daily study schedule, your wake-up time should be at 4:30 a.m. and lights out should be at 9 p.m.     This is to make your body clock adjust to this schedule so that by October or the bar month, you would be used to sleeping early and waking up early.   

 

ENROLL IN A BAR REVIEW CENTER.  There are advantages and disadvantages to enrolling in a bar review center.   Among the perceived disadvantages are the increased costs, which include the enrollment fee, the transportation and food costs, and accommodation costs for those who reside in the provinces.   Also quite some time is spent in preparing and dressing up and in going to and from the bar review center. 

 

Despite these considerations, I strongly recommend that a bar examinee enroll in a bar review center.   A law graduate does not have the degree of knowledge of the bar subject and the intuitive feel for what are the important topics and probable bar exam questions which an experienced bar review lecturer has.   Also a bar review center provides case and statutory updates, which because of time limitations, is often not provided by law schools. 

 

Take note that law and jurisprudence is in a constant state of flux and what you thought may have been good law last year or even last month may no longer be so.   Recent developments affect the law as a whole and not just specific or isolated provisions.  Hence these should not be taught or learned in a truncated or isolated manner but should be imparted to the reviewee in a holistic manner, that is, seamlessly woven into a bar review subject as an integral element thereof.    Only a seasoned bar lecturer, with his experience and intuitive feel of the law, is capable of performing this challenging feat.    A bar reviewee who relies on past review material and simply tries to incorporate “updates” into his study is playing with fire.          

 

A recent innovation is online bar review.  The bar reviewee need not go to a “brick-and-mortar” bar review center but can review in the comfort of his own home or wherever there is internet access.  This has the advantages of cost and time efficiency. 

 

In this regard, Jurists Bar Review is offering JURISTS COMBO, which combines the structured regimen and face-to-face coaching of the traditional review with the convenience and flexibility of an online review.

 

CHOOSE YOUR BAR REVIEW CENTER WISELY.  There are three important things which you should take into account in choosing a bar review center:  The line-up of lecturers, the schedule, and the existence of a coaching or mentoring program.

 

The line-up of lecturers is important.   Get the line-up and study this carefully. In appraising the line-up, get the opinion of successful bar examinees and your law professors.   Word usually gets around among the bar reviewees and the law academe about the outstanding and the mediocre lecturers.   Pay special attention to the lecturers in the subjects in which you feel you are weak.          

 

The schedule is also of capital importance.   Some bar review centers draw their schedule based on the availability of the lecturers rather than on topical continuity.  As previously stated, avoid bar review centers with hodgepodge schedules.   This will greatly undercut the effectiveness of your study.

 

If you have taken the bar more than three times, ensure that the bar review center is run by a recognized law school or that it has an accreditation agreement with one.   The Supreme Court will not allow you to sit for the bar examination unless you get a certification from such a bar review center. 

 

TAKE MOCK BAR EXAMS AND AVAIL OF THE SERVICES OF A BAR-EXAM COACH.   Another thing to look out for is if the bar review center has a coaching program.   The program should not be limited to the mere administration of mock bar exams, but should provide for one-on-one coaching wherein a coach reads and evaluates the examinee’s answers and then sits down and discusses the same with the examinee, seeking to identify the examinee’s strong and weak points, to remedy the latter, to coach the examinee on how to read and answer the bar exam questions, and in general to improve and maximize the examinee’s test-taking abilities.   

 

See to it that the mock bars replicate the bar examination (that’s why they’re called mock bars) and that there is a series of mock bars and coaching sessions (not just one or two) so that there will be adequate feedback and performance monitoring. 

 

Professor Mario Mainero, one of the foremost bar prep experts in the U.S., advises thus: “taking a practice exam under exam conditions is the best way to prepare for an exam.  If you do not take them as actual run-throughs, your mind and body will not become used to taking law school [bar] exams, and you are more likely to freeze up or perform at a less-than-peak performance level.”[1]     

 

Analyzing and answering bar exam questions is not a matter of gut feel or intuition.   The examinee who thinks that it is enough to just read and attend lectures when preparing for the bar is taking a huge risk.   A bar-exam coach or mentor would be most invaluable in helping the examinee  acquire the necessary competencies for succeeding in the bar exam.

 

The new changes introduced in the bar exam format underscore the importance of coaching and training.   The new format employs two kinds of questions:  (1) essay or problem-type questions, and (2) multiple-choice questions (MCQs).    Look for a coaching program that trains the examinee to handle both types of questions.  

 

The high mortality rate in the bar examination is traceable to the sole or over-reliance on passive study and the absence or lack of training and practice on bar exam strategies and tactics.  This matter has been raised as early as 1959 by Dean Wenceslao G. Laureta in the preface to his classic Secrets on How to Pass the Bar Examination (Rex Book Store, 1959 ed.)

 

Thus, it may be proper to remind the bar candidates some of the myths involved in the domain of bar examinations.  Almost invariably the bar candidates have the mistaken belief that by - - (1) Attending the best law schools; (2) Listening to lectures of renowned bar reviewers during review classes; and (3) Memorizing the law or the  rules of procedure, including doctrinal rulings will guarantee his passing the bar examinations.

 

Wrong.

 

There is no question that the above circumstances will help to enable the bar candidate pass the bar examinations.  But the blooming secret in this regard is simply this:  Present good answers that will make the examiner take notice.  Good answers anchored upon logical reasoning, written in readable English and more importantly, justified by appropriate legal authority. 

 

 

It would do well for the bar candidate to study carefully the manner in which answers are framed and the corresponding comments given.  He will not fail to see why a given answer is poorly presented and the value of the corresponding remedy to improve it in a manner acceptable to the examiner.  He must not make the tragic mistake of assuming that he knows all these things.  He must supplement his reading by actual practice in answer framing.  After all, one may know all the techniques on swimming which he can master from books on the subject, but until he jumps into the water, he will never learn to swim.  [Emphases supplied]

 

Bar exam strategies and tactics is a nuanced field which cannot be acquired from merely reading books and listening to omnibus lectures. The services of a competent bar exam coach or mentor would be most helpful.  A mock bar and coaching program is also in line with the recent pedagogical trend of shifting stress to “outcome-based education” from the conventional “input-based learning.”

 

The Supreme Court itself recognized the salient role played by mock bars and bar exam coaching.  The Guidelines for the 2014 Bar recommend thus:

 

Practice Exams

 

A good practice for law schools/review classes to observe is to hold practice examination sessions with the Bar candidates, both on the Essay and the MCQ formats. In evaluating these practice exams, attention should be given to both the law and the Bar candidate's presentation and use of English. In many instances, incorrect English is more serious as a problem than the lack of precise knowledge of law, and has been the cause of high failure rates. [Emphases supplied]

 

In line with the Supreme Court’s observation, Jurists has brought back the lecture “English for Bar Examinees” in order to train the bar examinees write in correct, readable, and concise English.  This would be especially helpful for those who need improvement in their legal writing and English proficiency as the course would provide them with helpful tips in order to surmount their challenges. 

 

FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS IN YOUR BAR REVIEW.  The key is not really studying more but studying smart.   It is simply impossible to read during the five months of review the entire code provisions of a law much less the texts or annotations thereon.   Besides some code provisions and comments are unimportant for purposes of the bar and are seldom if ever asked in the bar.  

 

During your review, you need to concentrate only on the primary review materials:  a bar reviewer, the code provisions, and the bar review materials provided by the bar review center.   In reading the code provisions, do not read the entire code but only those which are important.   You know a code provision is important if it was discussed by your professor or bar review lecturer or mentioned in your bar reviewer.           

 

A useful supplement to your reviewer is the Lex Pareto Notes written by Zigfred Diaz, Maria Patricia Katrina de Guia, Alrey Ouano, Louella Matsumoto, Ma. Salud Barillo, Danell Fernandez, Nolito Dayanan, and Helenytte Yu.    This is a breakthrough work wherein the authors, applying the Pareto Principle to the field of bar exam review and forecasting, have found that approximately 80% of the bar exam questions are derived from 20% of the law.  The authors have pinpointed this 20% of the law on which the reviewee should spend 80% of his study time thus optimizing the effectiveness of his review.

 

Many reviewees ask me if they should also read the survey of bar exam questions and answers published by the U.P. Law Center.  My answer would be yes, but not as a primary review material but as a supplemental training material.  You may from time to time pick some questions from the Q&A and then answer them without looking at the suggested answers.   Needless to state the services of a certified bar exam coach to evaluate your answers and give written feedback is strongly advised as “self-coaching” has its drawbacks.  

 

TAKE CARE OF YOUR HEALTH AND FITNESS.   Remember to exercise daily or at least three times a week.  Exercising improves blood circulation to the brain and makes one think more clearly.  It also builds up one’s resistance to sickness and infection and improves one’s stamina.  Remember that the bar exam is a grueling four-hour exam in the morning and another one in the afternoon. So I’m not greatly exaggerating when I say that it’s like training for a 20-K run. 

 

Get enough sleep.  At least six to seven hours sleep daily is advised.  Lack of sleep will result in drowsiness and sluggishness when studying, aside from making you susceptible to sickness or fatigue.      

 

Proper diet is often overlooked but it is of the utmost importance.  Observe a balanced and healthy diet, not forgetting fruits and vegetables. Please take it easy on fast food especially instant noodles!  (Well, from time to time fast food is alright but don’t make it your staple food).  A diet which would send a cardiologist into fits is not likewise appropriate for a bar reviewee. 

 

In fine take care of your health.   Good health is the foundation of an outstanding bar review. 

 

IMPROVE YOUR HANDWRITING.  Handwriting is of capital importance in the essay exams.  Your answers may all be logical and correct but if your handwriting is illegible all your hard work will go down the drain.   If your handwriting is difficult to read, the examiner will most probably not take the time to decipher your booklet, taking into consideration that he has about five thousand other booklets to read.  

 

You may think that your handwriting is legible when it’s actually not.   Take a mock bar examination and show your booklet to another person and have him read it.  You may be surprised to find that your handwriting is actually difficult to read.  If that is the case, work on improving your handwriting.  

 

DURING OCTOBER AND THE BAR EXAM 

 

AVOID UNNECESSARY STRESS AND DISTRACTIONS.   Some stress and nerves is unavoidable during the review and exam week and in fact helps to drive you harder in your studies.  However undue and excessive stress and nerves is an enemy of the bar examinee as it results in lack of sleep and hinders proper thinking both while studying and taking the exam itself.  If you feel that you are unduly stressed or worried, learn relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing.   Prayer and meditation are powerful relaxation techniques. 

 

Ignore useless distractions.   Usually rumors of who the examiner is become widespread during this time and examinees worry themselves silly with the type of questions the rumored examiner usually asks and with obtaining notes and materials written by or about the rumored examiner.  This is just a useless exercise which would distract you from doing what should be done:  studying.  All examiners are in the main bound by an unwritten law that their questions should be on the basics of the law and on significant jurisprudence.   So just ignore the question of who the examiner might be and stick your nose to your review materials.   

 

The bar exam month features the annual frenetic paper chase by bar examinees.  Examinees go on a quest for the Holy Grail of the bar exams:  the red or blue notes from San Beda or Ateneo or the UP notes.   These notes are supposed to embody the answers or even “leaks” of bar exam questions.   This is balderdash.  I graduated from Ateneo and worked in the bar-ops.  I know that the so-called blue notes are simply compilations of probable bar questions with answers prepared by law students with a little assistance from the faculty.   While they are definitely helpful, you don’t have to wail and grind your teeth if you do not get them.   What is contained in the blue notes is more often than not also in your bar reviewers and review materials. 

 

One examinee spent a lot more time looking for notes, tips, and leaks rather than studying.  He failed the bar five times and is now exploring career opportunities with the CIA. 

 

GET ENOUGH SLEEP ON THE NIGHT BEFORE THE EXAM.     This advice cannot be overemphasized.    Adequate sleep makes the mind sharper and allows us to recall what we have studied with facility.   So do not make the mistake of studying until the witching hour.   The extra hours of study is not worth it if you find yourself sleepy and thinking sluggishly during the bar exam. 

 

You should hit the sack by 9 p.m.   Do not panic if you find that you are unable to sleep.  Just relax and continue lying in bed, at least your body will be rested.  But do not make the mistake of standing up and studying.   In that case you will lack both sleep and rest, and the chances of a disaster are multiplied threefold.   Ron de Vera slept for only an hour the night before the first Sunday exam and for only 30 minutes the night before the second Sunday exam of 2004.   He placed second.  (Lat et al., Bar Blues, p. 85).   Of course I’m not saying that you get only an hour’s sleep if you want to place in the top ten, what I’m saying is that there is no need for you to call 911 if you find yourself unable to fall into the arms of Morpheus.       

 

I advise against taking sleeping pills.   They often have the side effect of muddling up your thinking.  There was an examinee who, finding himself unable to sleep the night before the Civil Law exam, popped a sleeping pill.  He was able to sleep all right, but the next day he found himself unable to distinguish between loco parentis and crazy momma. 

 

REMEMBER TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.  Before you start reading and answering the questions, take the time to first read and understand the instructions.  Quite a few examinees in their eagerness go straight to reading and answering the questions without bothering to read the instructions.  This could be disastrous.  Keep in mind that there will be different instructions for the three types of exams. 

 

NEVER LEAVE ANY QUESTION UNANSWERED.   Even if you are clueless as to the answer to a question, give it your best try.   Never leave any question unanswered.   The examiner may feel slighted if you do not answer a question.  He may think that you felt that the question was not properly crafted that is why did not answer it.  Moreover a blank response will get you zero while giving it your best shot could net you 2 or 3 points which could spell the difference between flunking and passing.

 

In the MCQ exam, remember that a wrong answer will not result in a deduction.  The MCQ exam does not follow the “right-minus-wrong” rule.  Hence do not leave any MCQ unanswered, since you have at least a 25% chance of picking the correct answer.

 

MANAGE YOUR TIME WISELY.  Many examinees spend too much time on the first part of the exam and thus find themselves rushing through the second part or worse running out of time and leaving some questions unanswered.    Learn to pace yourself properly.   Taking mock bar exams will help you learn how to pace yourself in a 18 to 20 question examination. 

 

DO NOT BE FLUSTERED BY “SHOCK AND AWE” QUESTIONS.   Those who took the 1991 Bar Examination (like me) will never forget the infamous first question in Political Law:  “What is the writ of amparo?  Discuss its constitutional basis.”     Considering that almost all of us examinees could not tell the difference between this writ and Ms. Amparo Munoz, the question had the effect of a sneak punch to the solar plexus.   I can still picture in my mind the bar exam room at MLQU, everyone was too flabbergasted to say anything but the shock could be seen in everyone’s faces.

 

I was not amused but on the contrary bemused.  For about seven minutes, I just sat there, unable to think or write anything down.  Eventually I was able to steady my nerves by thinking that if I found the question befuddling, quite a few others also probably did.   I wrote down something about the writ having to do with the enforcement of civil rights and being of Latin American origin, which I vaguely remembered from some obscure news item in the Manila Bulletin about a speech of Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan.

 

Other “shock and awe” questions include one which asked who the current president of the International Court of Justice was, one which asked for the meaning of the acronym ACID (from a speech of Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban), and another which asked the examinee to define the Denicola test in intellectual property law.

 

Such kinds of questions are not really expected to be answered correctly by the majority of the examinees (and even law professors) but are meant more to test the resolve and fortitude of one who aspires to be a lawyer.    Do not panic or lose hope if you do not know the answer to the question.  Just give it your best try and proceed to the other questions.

 

AFTER THE EXAM

 

DO NOT DISCUSS THE ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS.   After you have taken a bar exam in a particular subject, forget about it and concentrate on preparing and studying for the next bar exam subject.   After all you cannot undo what you have already written.   Avoid discussing the probable answers and avoid people who delight in discussing them.  The time spent on arguing and discussing the probable answers is better spent relaxing and preparing for the next exam. 

 

The bar exam is a formidable challenge but like any other hurdle it can be surmounted by assiduous planning and preparation.  The following quote from Steve Nash, a player of less than imposing physical attributes but who went on to become one of the NBA all-time greats, is inspiring:

 

You have to rely on your preparation.  You got to really be passionate and try to prepare more than anyone else, and put yourself in a position to succeed, and when the moment comes you got to enjoy, relax, breathe and rely on your preparation so that you can perform and not be anxious or filled with doubt.   

 

When your moment comes, enjoy it!

 

January 2015

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