JD Students Get Boost for Bar Exam and Beyond with New Program

April 3, 2019

The Professional Skills and Knowledge Program takes a holistic approach to academic and career success

When Bern Velasco walked across the stage during his University of Arizona Law graduation two years ago, he had a little something extra to celebrate. Velasco had received the highest score in the state on the February 2017 Arizona Bar Exam.  
Now, Velasco, who went on to clerk for Arizona Court of Appeals Division 2 Chief Judge Peter Eckerstrom before joining the firm of Mesch Clark Rothschild, has returned to Arizona Law to teach an essay-writing workshop and help students learn some of his strategies for bar exam success. 
 Velsaco's workshop is just one part of University of Arizona Law’s recently launched Professional Skills and Knowledge Program, an initiative dedicated to students’ long-term academic and career success, with particular emphasis on bar exam preparation and professional competencies. 
Amanda Bynum (’09) was hired in in 2017 to lead the Professional Skills and Knowledge Program. 
“Not only are we trying to build the professional skills and knowledge it takes for students to be successful on the bar exam, we’re also relating those same competencies to what it takes to be successful in the law practice,” Bynum says.  
The program curriculum extends what students learn throughout law school and takes a holistic approach to academic and bar exam readiness. It also capitalizes on the core strength most any Arizona Law student brings with them on exam day—the backing of a deeply supportive community. 
“Our program maintains the cohesiveness of the class and provides a mutually supportive atmosphere among all students,” Bynum says. “We don’t want our students to rely solely on commercial bar review companies for their preparation.” 
Dean Marc Miller says the Professional Skills and Knowledge Program fits in with Arizona Law’s commitment to being a leader in moving legal education forward to better serve students and the profession. 
“We are constantly innovating with student success in mind,” says Miller. “Our efforts to support excellent results on the bar exam are part of that tradition. We want our superb students to receive a well-rounded education that combines the best possible training in theory and policy, in practical skills and doctrine, and for bar success.” 

A Readiness Mindset from Day One 

The Professional Skills and Knowledge Program begins even before the first day of classes for 1Ls. All incoming JD students take a non-graded pre-diagnostic test. The results show each student their performance on bar-related subjects and test-taking skills. Students then receive individualized counseling to determine strategies for improvement.  
From there, all first-year students take a required year-round, single-credit “Preparing to Practice” course that covers topics such as professional identity and study skills while also teaching non-cognitive skills for lawyers like grit, identifying implicit biases, and stress management.  
“Our goal really is to make sure that students feel supported and confident going into the bar exam,” says Bynum, adding that the program is based on cognitive science and educational psychology and uses a variety of teaching methods including active learning, collaborative learning, self-regulated learning, skills instruction and practice opportunities throughout all three years of law school. “The program helps students identify non-academic barriers to academic success and how to overcome those obstacles.” 
Following a student’s first year, the Professional Skills and Knowledge Program offers a large menu of resources in as many formats as possible, including on campus, online and via self-study. Programming includes yearly diagnostic reports, various specialty courses and workshops, expert panels featuring past bar takers, talks on course planning and finances, an online question bank, and a simulated half bar exam each spring that delivers personalized feedback for each student. New graduates taking the July bar exam and alumni who have not yet passed also have access to the resources. 

Feeling Prepared and Supported “Every Step of the Way” 

3L Drew Warner participated in a pre-February bar two-credit course and took part in practice exams, essay exam workshops and performance test workshops.   
“I tried to take advantage of every resource the law school provided me—and along every step of the way, I felt both highly supported by the university and really pleased with the amount of resources they had invested into my (hopeful) bar success,” Warner says. 
“In particular, I really liked the essay exam workshop organized by Professor Bynum and alumnus Bern Velasco,” he says. “I felt like his techniques really helped me structure my essays, synthesize my answer and maximize my efficiency.”  
Fellow 3L Grace Parsons also used the Professional Skills and Knowledge Program resources to boost her preparation for the February bar. 
“Arizona Law's bar success program helped me feel more prepared for the exam every step of the way,” she says, calling the resources and guidance “invaluable” in helping her plan her 3L year. She took advantage of online resources and took a pre-bar professional skills course, which she credits with helping her better manage her time on essays.  
“I would highly recommend that future students take advantage of these resources and similar ones offered by the law school,” Parsons says. “The variety of resources make it easy to pick and choose which ones are most beneficial to you personally. 
“Even though I am still waiting for my bar exam results, I know that I felt more prepared and performed better on the February bar exam because of the practical and community support that Arizona Law offered over the past several months,” Parsons says.  
With each new semester, the Professional Skills and Knowledge Program will continue to refine its offerings and add new elements to respond to the changing needs of students, Bynum says. To learn more, contact Amanda Bynum at abynum@email.arizona.edu