Moonwalking Through the Bar Exam

Stephen Rutkowski

So, you think studying for the California bar exam is a predominantly ‘left-brain’ activity, requiring focus, logic, and critical thinking? You think there’s no time to waste on creativity and imagination?

Well, think again. Your imagination can play an important role in the studying process. Follow me down the rabbit hole, and I’ll explain:

Imagine your childhood bedroom.  Now, in that bedroom, imagine Richard Pryor in a jail cell watching a movie screen, wearing a perfectly tailored red suit, waving a sparkling magic wand in one hand, and holding Sigmund Freud’s severed head in the other. 

No, I am not hallucinating.  Rather, I am using a fascinating memory technique that helped me finally pass the California bar exam.

Moonwalking_with_einsteinJoshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein, describes how to use these memory techniques.  In a nutshell, one converts words into images and then places those images within a “memory palace,” which should be an actual place you know well.

Let’s take a closer look at how the seemingly nonsensical image above actually translates into the rule for prior restraint: Prior restraint (Richard Pryor in a jail cell) is the advanced screening (movie screen) of speech, which is disfavored unless the law is narrowly tailored (perfectly tailored suit) to a compelling (magic wands compel) or at least significant (Sigmund Freud) government interest.

You may choose different images to represent different words but the idea is the same: images are more vibrant, and therefore more memorable, than words.

In my previous attempts at the bar exam, I found myself constantly behind the eight-ball.  I spent most of my time trying to memorize the law by rote, which left virtually no time to practice applying the law.  I remember my first attempt where I started writing practice essays only two weeks before the exam.  There had to be a better way.

Then I came across Mr. Foer’s book and began the task of converting the words from my outlines into images.  A major advantage of this method is its staying power, or “stickiness” as Mr. Foer refers to it.  Think about it: is it easier to remember a chapter from your favorite book or a scene from your favorite movie?  Another advantage…it’s fun!  It almost has to be.  Mr. Foer explains the more fun or animated or outrageous the image, the stickier it becomes.  Returning to image above, that is why Mr. Pryor’s suit is red, why the magic wand is sparkling, why Mr. Freud’s head is severed.  The difference in my preparation turned out to be night and day.  Rather than spending most of my time memorizing the law and cramming in its application, I focused almost exclusively on application and the results showed.

It’s hard to imagine how these techniques are necessary in everyday life, where you can simply write things down.  But the legal profession is rife with occasions to memorize.  The bar exam is an obvious one.  Law students could also benefit if law schools implemented courses on developing memory.  Even experienced practitioners could benefit by having extra facts tucked away in their memory bank, such as during oral argument or at the negotiation table.  Whatever the application, I am living proof that these techniques work, and I hope they can also work for you in your pursuit and practice of the law.

About the author:

Rutkowski-HeadshotStephen A. Rutkowski graduated from CUNY School of Law in 2010.  He is a member of BASF’s Pro Bono & Community Service Committee and the Intellectual Property Section.