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California bar exam vs. Boston Marathon: Which is tougher?

Thursday, February 18, 2021 @ 12:30 PM | By Laurelly Dale

Laurelly Dale %>
Laurelly Dale
Running the Boston Marathon (on a broken leg) was easier than passing the California bar exam. And less time consuming.

On that positive note — the intent here is not to deter but rather to paint a realistic picture of what goes into writing — and passing — this agonizing exam from the perspective of a Canadian lawyer. The good news: it is possible. The bad: it will humble you to your knees. 

Setting up shop in California may have crossed your mind, especially in February as the frigid air stabs your lungs with each inhale, thinking about how nice it would be to plug in a Tesla instead of your car overnight to make sure it will start in the morning. While this may evoke warm vintage visions of walking into court as your favorite L.A. Law character, a hefty admission toll needs to be paid. The price of becoming a member of the California bar as a Canadian lawyer is broken down as follows:

  • Money: It will cost between $16,000 and $18,000. No joke. This is to write the exam once. Each time you write you are charged by the state bar close to $2,000 as a foreign attorney. You are then required to pay a further $750 to have investigators dig into your past once you’ve submitted a very thorough moral character application. Study tools such as Barbri, Kaplan, etc., will run approximately $5,000 to $7,000. Those are basic study tools to help cover the substantive material. As a Canadian lawyer you will need additional help to craft proper essays. Former bar examiners offer essay tutoring for $8,000 to $10,000 a session. There’s zero chance I would have passed without the essay tutor.
  • Time: Six months. Listen, everyone studies differently. If you were the type to cram for an exam or turn in a paper that was written at 3 a.m. and receive A+ then this advice might not be for you (and also, you’re the worst); but be warned: whether you’re a type-A nerd or a late-night superstar, you’re still a Canadian trained lawyer. This experience is humbling because we have achieved success in Canada as lawyers. Here, you need to become a student. Forget everything you know. Learn, and memorize, complex legal principles from 14 different areas of substantive law (both U.S. and California). Become well-versed enough in the principles so that you can analyze the law in a coherent and persuasive manner following a specific essay format. 

  • Sanity: The *year that shall not be named* threw us all. Here’s hoping you won’t have to write the California bar exam during a worldwide pandemic. You need to carve out a proper study schedule. Manage your work/life expectations. I was diligent about adhering to my study schedule. As a result, my confidence grew closer to the exam date knowing that I would have enough review time prior to the exam. Befriending other exam victims (students), can help in so many ways. Also, and arguably of utmost importance, is to detox at the end of each day. I powered through by focusing on the trash TV and wine that was waiting for me.

The format of the exam may be familiar. Similar to the Ontario bar exam, it is two full days long. Unlike Ontario, the entire exam is closed book — it’s just you and your brain. If you’ve followed a proper schedule and given yourself enough time to review, then you should walk into the exam with the confidence of Mariah Carey at Christmas. One day is devoted entirely to essays (five in total) and the second is comprised of multiple choice and a practical test.

Both days will fly by.

Once you’re done, proceed to enter the subsequent phase of superstition whereby you use every OCD trick to will your results into a pass. 

Would I be writing this article had I failed? Probably not. I’m petty like that.

However, I will admit that I went into the California bar exam harbouring a major confidence deflater: In July 2019 I wrote and failed the New York bar exam which is arguably easier to pass than Cal. Further, I was writing this exam hot off of the alarming 28.6 per cent pass rate (!), the lowest in history — securing the title yet again as the nation’s most difficult bar exam.

To add to the fun, something called COVID-19 hit. The exam was now being administered through a company that had not done the exam before. How did I overcome this impossible situation? Serenity now! I used the experience in New York to my benefit. As a result, I spent more time understanding my weaknesses in terms of substantive law and hired an essay tutor. Once I reached the stage of acceptance of what I needed to do, I was ready to pass the California bar. 

On its own, this exam can induce lunacy. It is not easy, but it is feasible.

As I stepped on to the start line of the Boston Marathon, I envisioned conquering what I thought was at one time an impossible goal. Somehow, I overcame the pain from running on a broken leg and in freezing cold rain to cross that finish line. I maintain my dramatic position that running on a broken leg is easier than this exam.

For some it might be childbirth or swimming the English Channel. Regardless, finding your name on the “Pass” list as a foreign attorney with zero U.S. training will be the ultimate life achievement. When you do, drink all the champagne. 

Laurelly Dale is a criminal defence lawyer with Dale Law. Contact her at

Photo credit / 
 Mykyta Dolmatov ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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