I just became a member of the California Bar (it’s official!) and a question I get a lot is what tips can I give someone who is a foreigner and is thinking about sitting for the bar exam.

California is an attractive state for many because it is one of the few states where you can sit for the bar without having passed through law school or an LLM in the state. For example, you can sit as a “foreign attorney” applicant, if you show that you are a member in good standing in a foreign jurisdiction. This makes things easier for applicants and much more straightforward.

But at the same time, California is daunting because of its low pass rates. For example, in the July 2015 exam, only about 14% of foreign attorney applicants passed. And this figure was similar in other editions of the exam.

So the question is – what can you do as a foreign applicant to prepare yourself? Here are some tips from my experience sitting for the bar last July.

1. Choose the right course for you

It is nearly impossible to pass the bar without taking one of the bar-prep courses. Fortunately for me, not having an employer to pay for the course and I was free to choose which course I wanted.
Themis, Kaplan and Barbri “tabled” at Stanford, and each time I went to visit them, each would gift me a “sample book” to prepare for the bar. Sample book! Huge nearly 1000-page booklets full of information with no clear organization for me. I was never going to make it in the 8-week period from graduation to bar exam with that sort of preparation.
So doing a bit of online research I chose BarMax. It was the right course for me for many reasons:

* It is the only course that is oriented to practicing, not to “studying”. This course comes with real MBE and Essay questions, licensed by the NCBE and the CalBar. With the MBE, this means that during practice time, you can have a real idea of how well you are doing. The essays are graded by BarMax’s team of former bar examiners, and the grading process is easy and quick – on average I had feedback on my essays between 12 and 36 hours after I uploaded them. This was incredibly helpful, not only to know where I was standing but also to get into the right emotional state, reassuring that things weren’t as bad as I feared and at the same time that I had to pay a lot of attention to how the essay is made and the things graders are looking for.

The course focused on what really mattered: practice, practice and more practice!

* Flexible study schedule. Many friends complained that they could never follow Barbri’s schedule and that was incredibly demoralizing. I wanted to avoid that for me.

In my situation, a flexible schedule was especially important because I needed to prepare on a “short” daily schedule. I was 6 months pregnant with my second, with a 20-month old baby home, and was also working remotely with my firm in Buenos Aires. Plus an unexpected international trip home for work that took away couple of days. I needed efficiency and effectiveness.

Luckily, the BarMax app really allowed me to prepare and change my own schedule, while giving me the confidence that it was possible to make it without being overwhelmed. In practice, I ended up preparing for about 6-7 hrs a day for 8 weeks, and due to my commitments, some days would be different than others. I would start at 8 and leave at 3 pm, with small breaks to walk, buy coffee or lunch. Towards the second month, I increased it to 7 days a week, usually 4 hrs on Saturdays and Sundays.

While in the beginning I felt bad about changing the order of the lectures, or leaving the library earlier than my classmates (especially those with no kids, who would stay up until 7 or 8 there!), or in general being more creative and flexible about the course, I realize that in the end that is what worked better for me.

* The plus. A free iPad. Great phone and e-mail support when I needed it.

Continue reading about taking the California Bar in my next post on the topic: Sitting for the California Bar as a Foreigner – How can I sit for the Bar Even If I Have Not Taken an LLM in the US?