Bar Examinations and Bar Passage

Under Pressure: How Incorporating Time-Pressured Performance Tests Prepares Students for the Bar Exam and Practice

Sabrina DeFabritiis, Suffolk University Law School
Kathleen Elliott Vinson, Suffolk University Law School


“Houston, we have a problem.” In 1970, an explosion on board the Apollo 13 spacecraft’s flight to the moon damaged the air filtration system, causing carbon monoxide to build up in the cabin. The astronauts on board would be dead in mere hours if the system could not be fixed or replaced. NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, Texas called for engineers, scientists, and technicians to work with a set of materials identical to those on the spacecraft to build a filtration system under extreme time pressure. The result may have been ugly, inelegant, and far from perfect, but it saved the astronauts’ life. The Apollo 13 situation may be a dramatic example of problem solving, creativity, and completing a task under extreme time pressure with life or death consequences; however, lawyers also work in stressful environments, under time pressure, while juggling multiple tasks involving life, liberty, or millions of dollars. How do recent law school graduates perform when facing a time-sensitive task when the stakes are high, when they are accustomed from law school of having several weeks or more, with feedback along the way, to complete that type of assignment?

To prepare students for the bar exam and teach them the fundamental lawyering skills needed for legal practice, legal education should incorporate, into the law school curriculum, performance tests consisting of time-pressured assessments. While time-pressured performance assessments may push students out of their comfort zone, they are realistic to legal practice and necessary to help students develop the competencies needed for success on the bar exam and high-stakes legal practice, such as rapid cognitive processing, application, synthesis, and effective articulation. This Article offers such an initiative to help law students, law schools, and the legal profession. At a time of declining bar passage rates, the adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam, a majority of jurisdictions incorporating a Multistate Performance Test component, a competitive legal job market, and an expectation of practice-ready law graduates, the time is urgent to adequately prepare law students.