A new batch of applicants are now preparing for their oral assessments (OA), having cleared the prior hurdles, and I received a message from a recent law school grad seeking advice on how to approach the OA. For those not in the process, ignore this post.
First and foremost, congrats on getting through the process to the OA. There is a very strict non-disclosure agreement so the following is pretty generic advice, but hopefully it will help.
For logistics, get a full night’s sleep the night before the OA. Get to DC or wherever you are taking the assessment at least a full day and night early so you can do a trial run of sleeping and getting up at 5:30 am to get to the site on time. It’s a long day and those that tried to fly in the day before, particularly from the West Coast or internationally, had a more difficult challenge (not impossible, but just harder).
The OA is not really comparable to the bar exam or law school exams other than the high stakes and length (although California’s bar exam was three days long so the OA sort of paled in comparison). One similarity to the bar exam: You may run into some taking the test with you that are on their second or third attempt. The case management section is most analogous to the practical section of the California bar (we didn’t have such a section in Massachusetts, my first state bar). The OA’s case management section measures the same set of skills: reviewing and prioritizing a mountain of information without sufficient time and then synthesizing the important bits into a coherent answer. Practice on a computer. I have been using macs for the last couple of years so it was a little jarring to be using a PC — there isn’t much difference when using Microsoft Word, but a few, so practice on a PC if possible. I found the OA case management more difficult than the Yahoo group practice exercises and the bar exam practical, but definitely doable. I passed the case management section but absolutely know that I did not find the best or most complete solution to the prompt.
Do not let your performance on any one section impact the rest of your day. Compartmentalize each exercise and don’t dwell on your performance until you have completed everything. I am usually pretty good at determining how well I did on an exam and was absolutely convinced that I did not pass the case management section. Thankfully, it was my last section for the day so my concern about that part had no impact on the others. Remember, you can still achieve a passing score overall and fail a section, or even fail two sections if you crush the third.
For all sections of the oral assessment, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. I cannot emphasize that enough. Those that do not do well will look back and invariable realize after the shock wears off that they followed a path that was most comfortable for them, but not necessarily what the instructions required. For the structured interview, prepare in the days and weeks before, 2 or 3 examples for each of the 13 dimensions. I did that and listened to the Yahoo group audio prompts to practice while walking the dog (in this day and age of bluetooth headsets, nobody looks twice at you talking to yourself as you walk down the street). Despite all the prep, I still found myself telling a couple of stories that I did not pre-prepare. All you can do is prepare as much as possible, but don’t get too wedded to your prepared stories. Following directions means answering the question precisely, not trying to fit a story into being an answer when it doesn’t really fit.
For the group exercise, there is some luck involved in getting a good group. You want to make sure your voice is heard, but I went in assuming the quality of one’s input is more important than quantity. In retrospect, I believe I spent more of my talking time working on process than substance. I certainly followed the directions in how I presented my material, but during the group discussion, most of our group wanted to jump right in and negotiate/advocate/TALK. After a bit, I jumped in as politely as possible and tried to structure and focus the discussion session so we actually came to consensus in the allotted time. This was appreciated by most (albeit not all) of the group and gave me credibility when I did weigh in on the substance. Everyone has a different style, but I would not advise trying to dominate the discussion. That said, you must be heard to be assessed. As with the other sections, if I didn’t emphasize it enough already, follow the directions.
No one approach will work for everyone and thus there is no “right way” to approach the assessment. Particularly since we don’t get any real substantive feedback on our performance (whether you pass or fail), all of the above incorporates a fair bit of conjecture. I passed all three sections with a strong enough score to receive a political appointment in the first class formed after hitting the register. I was lucky to get a really strong group exercise group (I think 4 of us passed from that sub-group). In sum, go in well-prepared and well-rested, stay focused on the exercise in front you, and be nice to everyone around you even when it’s stressful. Oh yea, and follow the directions. Good luck to all.