Should I take the bar exam?
August 14, 2019 5:06 AM   Subscribe

I received a law degree about a decade ago, as the legal employment world was tanking. I found a job/career that did not require me to be an attorney so I skipped the bar exam entirely. Ten years later it feels like I've plateaued in my non-lawyer career. I've been wondering lately whether I should sit the exam. I'm interested in hearing from/about folks who have done so after an extended period outside the legal profession. I'm also interested in opinions about whether my post-bar plans are realistic (I plan to keep my current job).

I envision success looking something like A) pass the test (my study habits are kinda meh, but my test-taking skills are pretty good), B) pick up some "casual" work (doc review? covering real estate closings? odd drafting?) amounting to 20-40 hours/month at say, $40/hr assuming I'm covering my own taxes, $20ish if I'm an employee, C) continuing to work my current job, D) maybe look to move to an attorney position adjacent to my current job in a few years.

In the end, I'm looking for a little bit of growth and a little bit of money. I'm specifically prohibited from moonlighting within my current field.

I know B) was how many of my classmates got through their first few years of lawyering and there are some "formal" markets that have developed to facilitate this lately. I have the benefit of health insurance and a steady middle-class income, but the burden of being more-or-less busy during typical working hours. I'm remote from that network of people these days geographically and relationally.

It looks like this process will cost about $5,000 in my state, including some form of bar review course, plus the extensive time to prep for and take the exam. Plus insurance and business expenses (I don't envision having a physical office).

If this sounds unrealistic I'm definitely open to hearing that I should take my $5k, all the time I'd spend studying, and use it instead to open an ice cream cart or a pest control service or something.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think part-time attorney work---if you haven't practiced and have a full-time job right now---is a silly thing to spend $5k (and a LOT of time) on. If you want to move to an attorney position, then yeah, that might be worth it. But I definitely wouldn't do this to part-time. Most formal or structured doc review type places are going to want you to be exclusive to them for conflicts reasons; the occasional real estate closing will be accomplished by the person who has done a million of them and already knows the people involved.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:25 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

In your shoes I'd definitely do it. It's a hell of a qualification to get for $5K.
posted by zadcat at 6:23 AM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's hard to cut down the unknowns in a situation like this. If the average person has to investigate 100 opportunities to get a job, you might have to dig up 200, and that in a restricted corner of the job market.

You don't say want kind of job you have now, but you can beat the odds a little bit if you can carry over some of your decade of work experience.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:08 AM on August 14, 2019

Where are you located? I think the feasibility of this plan depends considerably on the market.
posted by praemunire at 7:35 AM on August 14, 2019

I'm not sure how tough it is to find part-time legal jobs as an inexperienced attorney, but as a long-term project, it seems plausible that you'd be able to build up skills somehow and find steady work in some niche that you were interested in and good at. And since the only continuing costs once you've passed the bar are bar dues and CLEs, it would probably be a good investment for the long-term.

As for the bar, I recently took the bar for a second time about four years after graduating, so it's not quite the same scenario, but I can say that studying while working full-time sucks. However, taking it without the pressure that your job depends on passing made it much easier to deal with.

If you've never studied for the bar before, you may want to pay for a course, but I would really just buy the cheapest course available and use as many free resources as you can, I don't think the value added by the big courses is worthwhile at all. If money is tight and you feel good about your test taking skills, I'd skip a course entirely and buy some used books off ebay and/or find outlines online. The test is really just a bunch of essays and multiple choice,

I used Themis the first time, and the second time just bought all the published MBE questions from barmax (adaptibar also sells them) and spent 90% of my study time on the MBE. If you are in a state that weighs the MBE 40 or even better, 50%, and you can manage to get your accuracy up to 75-80% or so, you can really phone it in on the essays and still pass.
posted by skewed at 7:39 AM on August 14, 2019

You have to check the rules in your jurisdiction, but depending on what law school you went to, this may or may not be feasible. Some law schools won't certify people to take the bar exam unless they received their J.D. fewer than X number of years ago, where X=10 or less. If you're in a state where a J.D. is required for licensing, I would check up on that before moving forward on taking the exam.

As to the "not having having a physical office" part, that actually could be kind of a big deal depending on your circumstances, and something you also need to check on. Again, in some jurisdictions (including my own, New York), if you're a non-resident, you aren't permitted to practice law in New York unless you have a physical office within the New York. A virtual office doesn't count.

As a side note: the idea of a J.D. by itself being a great qualification is, to put is charitably, vastly overstated.
posted by holborne at 8:11 AM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Regarding the feasibility of your plan, the sort of "casual work" you're describing is a lot easier to do if you've already lawyered full-time and have some connections. For example, you've worked at a real estate firm for 5 years and now want to take time off for kids or whatever - then it's easy to say "oh yeah, we have some overflow work, we've liked anonymous in the past, let's give it to anonymous."

But I have a hard time envisioning your value proposition for an attorney in a position to send out overflow work. There are plenty new lawyers who haven't practiced before and are willing to be available for, say, a month-long doc review session. And the attorneys who hire them for the contract can lock them in a windowless conference room and ensure (1) they're doing the work and (2) the work remains confidential. None of that is true with you.

And if I'm assigning overflow work to a remote contract attorney, I need to be confident that they'll deliver back to me a workable final product that I can file or send to a client or whatever. That confidence is easier to have if the contract attorney has been a full-time lawyer for a significant chunk of time. I've mentored new, out-of-law-school attorneys, and their work product is often uneven at best. I'm not saying your work product would be, but from the perspective of someone doing the hiring, if I'm risking having to rewrite whatever I'm sending out, it's too much work and it's easier to just do it myself. Why would I send it to you unless I've worked with you before, or unless someone whose opinion I value highly has vouched for you?
posted by craven_morhead at 8:24 AM on August 14, 2019

If you are in certain markets, you might be able to do second-shift doc review for urgent jobs (i.e., not remote, but not during 9-5). However, I don't know if that work would be particularly steady, especially as predictive coding eats some of that work up.

But, saying this as (like all of us) a former first-year, the value you bring at that point is in some ways even more limited in the sort of rote practical work you're thinking about, because you're dealing with particular semi-opaque processes for getting things done and the only way to find out the right way to do it is through experience. Like, most medium to large law firms have what they call "managing attorneys" or similar, who do not manage the firm, they manage getting stuff filed with the courts, because who cares if you can write a really good brief for a dispositive motion, that doesn't inherently translate into knowing exactly where that one document needs to be filed, and when, and every court is slightly different, and where are the rules, and why don't they specify...

That said, I bet you can bring the cost of sitting the exam way down by buying some used review materials. I'm not sure the live courses accomplish much other than try to hold you to a study schedule.
posted by praemunire at 9:02 AM on August 14, 2019

You’re already done with the time consuming hard and expensive part. To take 2-3 months and $5k to become a licensed attorney would be worth it to me. The harder part might be character and fitness though, in my state at least they require like 8 references, including from the dean of your law school, so that might be an annoying hurdle to jump through. Ultimately worth it though, even if you don’t use it as anticipated, it’s nice to have options in life.
posted by katypickle at 10:16 AM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Having been on the periphery of a bar exam (observing with amusement and horror), it seems the test courses are for recent grads in a hurry, can you make a two year study plan that's vastly cheaper and less stressful?
posted by sammyo at 11:00 AM on August 14, 2019

I’d suggest you look into your options for jobs before you do this. As an attorney I’d agree that it may be hard for you to find part time or document review jobs that either require no experience or are compatible with a full time job. It may be cheaper and easier to find another type of part time job that pays what you’re looking for. Check out the Posse List it’s a mailing list that sends out contract and doc review jobs.

The bar exam and character and fitness can be a long process and it’s not going to make it any easier since you’ve been out of school for so long. You’re not going to study for the bar over a longer period of time because it’s a lot of rote memorization so you’ll be devoting a lot of your free time to it for a few months.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 11:49 AM on August 14, 2019

If your current employer were interested in hiring you as in-house counsel, would that appeal? Of course they wouldn’t be able to promise anything based on a hypothetical, but you may want to ask around.
posted by kapers at 2:05 PM on August 14, 2019

Just to focus on the doc review part, doc review for a review service isn't going to pay $40+ per hour, especially to someone who just took their bar exam, and even more especially someone who isn't even working full-time. I got out 6 years ago, and my newest colleagues were being hired at 45k/year or less. That's with mandatory 10-(billable)-hour days (so more like 11-12 hours per day) and no overtime because lawyers count as "learned professionals" and don't qualify for overtime even if they're paid hourly rather than salary.

Plus, the entire doc review industry is changing and contracting because of computer-aided review. Where 10 years ago computers were maybe doing OCR and highlighting names and keywords from a list for the reviewer, these days they only need relatively small sample sets reviewed by humans to accurately review the bulk of the documents.

If you can find a job where they want you to have passed the bar exam, I'd say go for it. But find that job first, before you shell out the money for the exam (if you even qualify for it anymore, a decade after graduation - check with your local bar). Given the number of larval lawyers graduated by the 200+ law schools in the US every year, even the lower paying part-time jobs have a ton of competition, which drives down wages.
posted by yggdrasil at 8:17 AM on August 16, 2019

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