The Vermont Bar Exam: Reflections, Part I

[Disclaimer: there will be no discussion in this or any other post about specific questions or essay topics that have appeared on any Vermont Bar Exam. Although I can barely remember them, anyway!]

In July of this year, I sat for the Vermont Bar Exam in Montpelier. This past Friday, I got my letter in the mail: I passed!

This is the culmination of four years of apprenticeship and study, about five months of intensive bar review and preparation, three grueling days of exams (including the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam), and worst of all, two torturous months of limbo as I waited for my results.

I haven’t wanted to discuss the whole bar exam experience until now, because I was stressed out and frankly had gone into a surreal sort of denial. There were some days when I literally did my best to pretend that the test had never happened. But it did happen and I passed! Congratulations to all the other examinees, too! (The Vermont Board of Bar Examiners has released the official pass list here here, see Results of the July 2011 Bar Examination)

I’m an unusual bar examinee. Vermont is one of a handful of states that allows me to practice law without going to law school proper. Here in Vermont, the Board of Bar Examiners administers, as an alternative, a law office clerkship option. The program requires that the “student” study and work with a practicing lawyer or judge for four years. During that time, the applicant must submit written reports at six-month intervals. For more information on eligibility and requirements for Vermont’s unique clerkship option, visit the Vermont Judiciary’s website.
There are lawyers all over Vermont who have gone this route, from private attorneys to public defenders, prosecutors and judges. Amy Davenport, Vermont’s Chief Administrative Judge for the Trial Courts, got her education this way. The law clerkship option is even represented on the Vermont Supreme Court. Marilyn Skoglund, Supreme Court Justice, is a clerkship graduate.

There are substantial advantages to the clerkship option. By working with a practicing attorney for four years, clerkship students get unprecedented exposure to the hard realities of law practice.

After a short stint in a Vermont State’s Attorney’s office, I had the incredibly good fortune to do my remaining three and a half years as a law clerk at the extraordinary Sleigh & Williams, a criminal defense and civil rights’ firm in St Johnsbury.

The Capitol Plaza in Montpelier; site of those difficult two days.

I drafted (with review and approval by supervising attorneys), more complaints than I can now count, including one that had a major impact on changing Vermont’s new sex offender legislation. I also drafted just about every conceivable kind of pleading and/or brief in numerous venues, including Vermont Superior and District Courts, the Vermont’s Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Vermont Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for Vermont, and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. I became adept at legal research. I interviewed clients and learned how to review medical records. I helped draft deposition questions. I assisted at mediations. I assisted during numerous jury selections, assisted and observed at nine criminal trials, and drafted defense counsel’s jury instructions. I did mitigation research and interviews for sentencing hearings. When I became eligible to practice as a supervised intern under the Rules, I represented my own clients and appeared at arraignments, status conferences and calendar calls. I argued bail motions and I negotiated with prosecutors. (And in the meantime, I studied my brains out, doing my best to stick to a curriculum I designed for myself, with suggestions from the Board of Bar Examiners.)

No law school graduate, whether from Harvard or Vermont Law, finishes her education with that kind of experience.

When I’m admitted later this fall, I’ll start my career with no debt. In stark contrast, the average law school graduate ends up owing $100K in student loans. Recently, the New York Times reported at considerable length on the consequences of this crushing debt burden for aspiring lawyers. In the midst of all the current debate about the viability of a law school education, it’s genuinely remarkable that almost no one is talking about the clerkship programs.

I kept track of how much I spent on my education during the four years of my clerkship, and it amounted to about $8,000. Total. That included gas for mileage, a dedicated “law” laptop computer, lots of books, the costs of two bar review courses, and the fees associated with application for admission and examinations.

My freedom from law education debt allows me a significant measure of flexibility in my choice of jobs and practice. Of course, the clerkship option limits me, as well. Most other states won’t allow me to even take their bar exams unless I’ve attended law school (so it’s a good thing I love Vermont and plan to stay here!)

There are some drawbacks to the clerkship and it may not be for everyone. There were times when I badly wished that I had a group of fellow law students to keep me company while I studied. Moreover, in order to be successful doing the clerkship, you need to be disciplined, ie: have the ability to structure your own course of study. Most of the time, I did that reasonably well, but it wasn’t always easy.

However, in the end, for me, the positive aspects of the law office clerkship outweighed the negatives. I’m just very proud and glad to have gotten through it!

I’ll post more on the bar exam experience itself later….

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “The Vermont Bar Exam: Reflections, Part I

  1. L

    Do you know what other states have a clerkship option (or similar program)? Thanks very much for answering my question.

    • Laura L. Wilson

      There are seven states which permit the clerkship option, or some version of it. California, New York, Washington State, Virginia, Wyoming, Vermont, and Maine. New York and Maine both require, I believe, one year of actual law school, while the others don’t require any law school at all.

  2. Even though late, congrats! That’s quite an accomplishment! I have a law degree but it’s been years and I would need to create a schedule and hit the review books to prepare for the Vermont exam. Would you mind elaborating more about how you prepared (review course, etc?) Thanks so much!

  3. We can correspond off blog if that’s better – thanks!

    • Laura L. Wilson

      Laury,
      It feels so long ago that I took that damn exam and passed it–another world even though it’s only been a little over 2 years now!

      I was determined to take no chances with my preparation. I was all too aware that those who read or clerk for the law have abysmal pass rates. (The reasons for that are complex, and I think have virtually nothing to do with lack of actual law school attendance).

      Therefore, I prepared ad nauseum. I probably overdid it. But–again, I wasn’t about to take any chances and risk having to take the exam again (frankly, I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than having to do it again.)

      I took the summer exam (July). In January, I enrolled and started in the Kaplan PMBR course, which focuses exclusively on the MBE. It’s an online course, but highly structured. Between January and exam time, I took a full simulated exam every month (with smaller tests every day) so I could track my scores and improvement over time.) Then in early May, I started the ever ubiquitous Barbri course, which focuses on both the MBE and the essay (Vermont) test.

      From January until the July exam–with the exception of a three week trial in Burlington where I was defense counsel asst, I did not work. All I did was study. In January and February, I studied two hours a day, plus video lectures and practice tests. In March-April, I bumped that up to about four hours a day. Once I started the Barbri course in early May, I had a strict study schedule of 8-9 hours per day. I took the online Barbri course because I live far from the course site, and the lectures were almost all on video anyway, even if you took the class “live.” Barbri has a hyper-structured study plan in place, where they give you reading, sample tests, lectures every day, and you check them off. This was tremendously helpful to me. The plan generally worked, I only had to make a few adjustments to it, and there were only a few practice essays at the end that I never got to.

      If I were to make one basic recommendation, it would be: take as much time as you possibly can before the exam to devote exclusively to studying. Don’t work at a job, if possible. Make arrangements in advance with spouse/partner/children that you will be busy and generally unavailable during the day because you’ll be studying. Taking two weeks off from work before the exam simply will not cut it. Perhaps you don’t need to go to the extreme I did of taking five months off, but I would suggest AT LEAST 8 weeks and more if possible. Other recommendation: have a plan. There’s no single plan that will work for everyone, but the important thing is to have that plan that involves a disciplined schedule. There were many times when I felt overwhelmed and it really saved my butt that I had a daily, and even hourly plan that I could fall back on rather mechanistically.

      Let me know if you have any specific questions.

      • AlmostDone

        I have a specific question: I’m looking and looking and can’t seem to find any other bar review course besides BarBri that has a complete Vermont course (as in, Multistate+VT). Since BarBri is the most expensive one, I would be very pleased to know of alternatives!

      • Laura L. Wilson

        Hi, Almost Done,
        To my knowledge, unfortunately, Barbri is the only commercial bar review course that incorporates the unique state distinctions into its curriculum. Even with Barbri, there isn’t a whole lot of focus on Vermont (or any specific states.) They did provide the book of past essay questions and model answers, which was very useful, and a thick packet of “Vermont distinctions.” (A packet I still refer to sometimes!). At the time I took the exam, I was quite worried about learning Vermont law, as I didn’t see any comprehensive, defined way to learn it beyond Barbri. But in retrospect, my fears were pretty much groundless. Vermont is such a small jurisdiction that there just aren’t that many distinctions from most other states. The ones that do exist were well covered in the distinctions package. What also helped me tremendously was a self-study strategy: I decided to read every single Vermont Supreme Court decision of the prior two years, and then brief each one. As I read and briefed (over about a 5 week period), I created a table in an MS Word doc that contained the name of the decision, where appealed from, the question(s) presented in the case, and the holding(s). Then for an hour every night after my other studying, I reviewed that table. I did this because I had heard from several sources that the bar examiners like to test on recent Supreme Court decisions. In fact, that did not turn out to be actually true for my exam. But still, I didn’t regret reading and memorizing the holdings of all those cases–it really immersed me in Vermont law on a general level, which did help me on essay day (just not in the way I thought it would!). But, the short answer is NO–Barbri has the best combo of Multistate and state specific law. The more important advice, though, is not to worry about the Vermont law–it’s not as daunting, and doesn’t matter as much, as you think. Good luck, and feel free to ask any more questions you want!

  4. Nicole

    Laura,

    I am looking to start the Law Office Study in a couple months. My supervising attorney and I are both trying to plan out the study’s curriculum. We’ve printed out and looked over the recommended courses from the Vermont Judiciary website – but we are looking for a more detailed lesson plan if you will. How did you go about learning all the material? What books or references did you use? Any advice or examples you could give would be so helpful!

    Thank you!

    • Laura L. Wilson

      Nicole,
      Happy to tell you what I did for study. If it’s okay, I’ll use the email that shows up here. I’ll give more details, but in sum, I took two commercial courses, the PMBR Kaplan course (for the MBE) and the Barbri course. I also read and briefed every single Vermont Supreme Court ruling for the previous 2.5 years. LW

    • Adrien

      I see that you’ve found an attorney! Any advice for me about how you researched?

      • Laura L. Wilson

        Adrien, I started my law office study program in 2007 and finished in 2011 and that same year took the bar exam and was then admitted. I’ve been practicing for almost 4 years now. Back when I started, I clerked with the State’s Attorney here in Essex County for the first six months, and then did the remaining years at a criminal defense firm in St Johnsbury. I was very lucky. It’s hard to find sponsoring attorneys who are willing to do it. Now that I’m a lawyer, I understand how difficult a thing it is for attorneys to do. But be persistent, and you will find someone who needs help and is willing to be generous with their experience and knowledge.

  5. Adrien

    Hello, I am hoping to start the law office study program within 1 to 2 months. Do you have any advice on where to find offices that are willing to participate in the program. I’ve reached out to various offices, but not much luck. Thanks!

    • Laura L. Wilson

      Unfortunately, I do not have any earth-shattering or even good advice about how to find sponsoring attorneys. I consider it to be one of the weaknesses of the law office study program. It is up to the “student” exclusively to identify, approach, and work out the terms of the law office study arrangement. A very common approach is that people who are already in full time positions in law firms, as legal secretaries, admin assistants, or paralegals sign up for the program, and they have an already-built in sponsoring attorney that they know. This is convenient and handy, although it can have its own drawbacks, because there is so little time for study. I did not have this scenario in place. I had to think about who I wanted to be my sponsoring attorney, and proactively approach them. Didn’t work out on the first try, and after six months, I had to find another firm. That time, it ended up great, though, I was very lucky. Established lawyers are not exactly jumping at the chance to be a sponsoring attorney, because there is no pay involved for it, and because it’s time consuming and sometimes distracting to have to think about teaching someone. You really have to find a way to make yourself valuable. I worked for free for the first couple of years (I had a part time job elsewhere.)

      • Adrien

        Great advice, I will start adding in that I can work extra hours for free. I realize that the process can be discouraging, but I am still excited about my future with this program!

    • Yaronit

      I do have some earth shattering advice/news: keep trying! Just look up all the law firms in the geographical areas that you are willing to consider driving to, and contact all the law firms until you get a bite. You have to be persistent and professional and not set back by rejection. This was my approach as a law school graduate having passed the VT bar and in need of an attorney position. Basically, it’s more or less the same for you: you have almost nothing to offer, but you need experience. You have to convince someone that you are worth having around, and in my experience it will be because you are personable and put yourself out there in a way that is confident and animated. You sound like you know what you’re talking about even if deep down you are unsure. It’s the idea of eliciting trust in people–people want to hire people that seem like they will inspire clients to trust in them and the law firm. It took me quite a while to finally find a job, so don’t worry and keep at it, eventually you will get what you need.

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