A CLOSER LOOK—PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE BAR
Q&A with Joni Wiredu, Senior Director of Academic Excellence
For law students, passing the bar exam is the final finish line to cross before launching their legal careers. The pandemic created even more challenges for AUWCL students and recent graduates prepping for the bar over the past year. American University Washington College of Law’s Office of Academic Excellence (OAE) took action to lower these hurdles, implementing programs and initiatives to ensure our students are in the best position as they sit for the exam.
The Advocate spoke with Joni Wiredu, senior director of Academic Excellence at AUWCL, to discuss the ways in which her office is meeting the needs of students and recent graduates, and taking a community-based approach to ensuring their success as they prepare for the bar exam.
Q: HOW DO OAE’S VIRTUAL BAR ESSAY SIMULATIONS AND TWO-DAY MOCK BAR EXAMS WORK, AND HOW DO THEY HELP STUDENTS PREPARING FOR A VIRTUAL BAR?
The virtual bar essays allow students to practice writing essays online and under timed conditions. Once they complete the simulation, we offer a debrief by going over the essay analysis emphasizing format, issue spotting, and organization— essentially making sure that they have a logical flow to their essay analysis. With the mock exams, again, we are offering students additional opportunities to practice online under timed conditions.
The more you simulate under test-like conditions, the better students feel, because they now have an idea of the virtual and time-pressured experience. This past summer and fall season, we had 97 students participate in our mock bars.
We offered several mock exams to give as many students the opportunity to take advantage of that type of exercise. Of the 70 student mock exam participants for whom we have data, 63 passed the bar. So we’re really excited to see the engagement and provide them that space for continued practice before the exam.
Q: WHY DID OAE FEEL IT WAS KEY TO GIVE STUDENTS THE OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE BAR OFFICE HOURS WITH AUWCL FACULTY AS THEY PREPARE FOR THE EXAM?
Our faculty are the subject matter experts, and at the end of the day are the ones who really understand the substance. Sometimes students need that additional talk through on how the subjects will be tested and things to look for on the bar exam itself. I always stress that bar readiness for students is a community effort. I think it’s important for students to see that everybody is supporting them and rooting for their success and everyone wants to see them succeed. Incorporating our professors into the bar review process provides an extension of the faculty support they’ve already been feeling throughout their time at AUWCL.
Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR OFFICE’S BAR COACHING INITIATIVE, AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT THAT STUDENTS AND ALUMNI HAVE THAT PERSONALIZED CORRESPONDENCE WITH A BAR COACH?
The bar coaching initiative has been great. We started this past summer with faculty and staff as coaches, and I’d like to see alumni become more involved as well. This past summer there were 13 of us, including OAE staff. Each non-OAE coach was assigned between 15 and 20 students. We’ve found consistent engagement beneficial when students know that someone is paying attention to what they’re doing and their progress, knowing that someone can provide them strategies on how to get over specific obstacles that might arise during bar preparation.
COVID made us push this initiative forward a little faster than expected but I think it was necessary, particularly because we knew that our students were going to be far more isolated than normal. Bar prep is already an isolating experience. Therefore it was important to have coaches available to contact our bar takers bi-weekly—whether email or text message or phone call—to check in, see how they are feeling, and offer additional strategies and support.
Q. THE OAE HAS HELD PANELS WITH ALUMNI WHO HAVE RECENTLY GONE THROUGH THE BAR EXPERIENCE. WHAT UNIQUE INSIGHT DO THESE ALUMNI PROVIDE TO THOSE WHO ARE PREPPING TO TAKE THE EXAM NEXT?
Our alumni panels give current bar takers first-hand insight on how to prepare, resulting in a boost of confidence and an “I can do this, too” feeling. It’s been helpful for students to hear about the online, remote experience because the District of Columbia and Maryland have already announced that the July 2021 bar exam will be administered online. So having conversations about what that experience is like sheds some light, because we don’t have the online tools to be able to share with students exactly how that looks or feels. Alumni panels help demystify the bar exam experience, and hopefully minimize some of our students’ anxieties about the bar exam.
Q: WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE MAIN CONCERNS DISCUSSED DURING OAE’S BAR ADVISING HOURS, AND WHAT ADVICE DO YOU FIND YOUR OFFICE COMMONLY PROVIDING STUDENTS AS THEY PREPARE FOR THE EXAM?
The No. 1 question we get is where to take the bar, because it can be challenging for students to figure that out when they’re not currently employed. We’re constantly talking to student about things like “Where do you want to live?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?” We talk about where their networks are, and where they feel they have the most support.
The biggest strategy in preparing is to have a plan. And it sounds simple to say, but that’s not always easy because life is still going on around you. By making a schedule ahead of time, you can build in time for yourself, your family, and other loved ones. There is a need for flexibility. I think it’s important for students to know that there will be bad days. There will be days when they might not get everything done. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t try to push through. If it didn’t happen today, start over tomorrow. The ability to adapt is an important skill during the bar preparation experience.