Taking the Bar Exam? Don’t Study, Finish Early

Editor’s Note: The author is the former president of ABC News and a Bloomberg TV anchor.

By David Westin, Bloomberg TV

The Bar Exam: A rite of passage every lawyer has to go through; everyone dreads; and everyone agrees is so terribly important to becoming a lawyer. So why didn’t I take it more seriously?

Mine came in the summer of 1979. I was coming off of a clerkship with Justice Powell and headed toward a job at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (as it then was). There was just one hurdle left: My new firm expected that I actually become a lawyer, and that meant that I had to take — and pass — the D.C. Bar Exam.

So, I took the month of July off, signed up for the BARBRI course, got my two humongous paperback tomes (legal size paper, of course), and settled in for a long month of study. But before I began, I needed a strategy. How much time was I going to spend on this every day? How many of these interminable classes was I actually going to attend? How well did I need — did I want — to do on this exam?

After giving these important questions less than five minutes thought, I came to a startling conclusion, a conclusion that had never crossed my mind in law school. I was going to do as little as I could to get through it. For the first time ever, I not only would settle for a “gentleman’s C”; it was my goal. No one was ever going to know how well I did; only that I passed (or failed). Any time or effort that went into doing better than OK would be wasted. And I wasn’t in a mood to waste either time or effort on this particular hurdle.

Once I had my goal firmly in mind, my strategy for achieving it was clear. I went to some classes, but far from all. I would guess something less than half; I’m pretty sure it was more than a quarter, but I couldn’t swear to it. I spent a few hours each day sitting by the pool at the garden apartment complex we lived in off Seminary Road in Alexandria. I read the books, did some annotating. And I learned things I was confident I would never need to know — or, if I did, would forget by the time the door closed behind me on the way out of the exam. Things like negotiable instruments and the Rule Against Perpetuities and Landlord Tenant Law.

The marble laden entrance of the US Supreme Court, void of the normal hoards of tourists, has only an unidentified man taking a few minutes out of his day for a quick nap, 26 August 2002 in Washington, DC. Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
The marble laden entrance of the US Supreme Court, void of the normal hoards of tourists, has only an unidentified man taking a few minutes out of his day for a quick nap, 26 August 2002 in Washington, DC. Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

The end of July came, and I faced two long days taking the examination itself. Bright and early I reported to my assigned classroom at Georgetown Law School, along with a hundred or so other recent law school graduates. I picked up my exam packet from the desk at the front of the room and, as I always did in law school, climbed the stairs to the top tier of the desks, taking a seat in the center of the back row. I can’t say I remember much about the questions they asked or the answers I gave; I do remember that they seemed pretty straightforward and basically tied into the materials I’d studied. I worked diligently through to the lunch break, came back after lunch, and resumed my work, using up several of the number three pencils I’d brought to make sure I filled in those little boxes for the multiple choice answers.

When I’d been through all the questions and answers in the packet for that first day, I looked up and discovered that it was only about 2:45 in the afternoon, well short of the allotted time. I had a choice to make: Should I go back over my answers, carefully double-checking them (and myself)?

Nah. I’d given it my best shot, and I stuck with my strategy of going for no better than a passing grade. So, I stood up — heads around me turning to see what was wrong — walked to the front of the room, and handed my packet into the proctor, who looked up in surprise, noting that I had a lot of time left. I said I knew I could take longer, but I was finished. And I walked out.

The second day came, and I repeated the same ritual: to the room a bit early, picked up my exam packet, went to a seat at the back of the room, powered through it, looked up at the clock, and discovered that I’d done a bit better — closer to 2:15 or 2:30. So, I packed up, turned in my paper, and walked out, leaving others to wonder what had happened.

I wouldn’t likely be telling this story today if I hadn’t passed the Bar Exam on that first taking. And I did. I’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure I did not do better than that “C” I was shooting for. I reported to work at Wilmer, Cutler pending my swearing in and, in the middle of a day toward the end of the year, went with several hundred others to be “sworn in” in a mass ritual at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall just down from the White House. I went on to practice law in Washington and London for twelve years, spent a little over two years as General Counsel at Capital Cities/ABC, and then somewhat reluctantly “left” the law at the instance of the CEO to go over to the business side.

I still carry my DC Bar card in my wallet, and I continue to pay my dues every year, even though I haven’t really practiced law for over 20 years.

But whether practicing law or working in media, I’ve never to this day had to go back and remember those rules about negotiable instruments. Or the Rule Against Perpetuities. Or anything about Landlord Tenant Law.

Not that there would have been anything wrong if I did.

David Westin, then-president of ABC News, poses for the media during the 61st Annual Peabody Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York on Monday, May 20, 2002. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.
David Westin, then-president of ABC News, poses for the media during the 61st Annual Peabody Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York on Monday, May 20, 2002. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.
LOS ANGELES - JULY 12: (L to R) President of ABC News David Westin, and anchors Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos speak with the press during day one of the ABC Summer TCA Press Tour at the Century Plaza Hotel on June 12, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES – JULY 12: (L to R) David Westin, and anchors Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos speak with the press during day one of the ABC Summer TCA Press Tour at the Century Plaza Hotel on June 12, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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