Vietnamese woman scores top 1% on US bar

By Phuong Anh   May 3, 2024 | 10:00 pm PT
A Vietnamese woman has scored 334 out of 400 on a U.S. state bar examination after graduating early with honors from law school.

Tran Chau Kim Khanh, 25, took the Texas Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) in February.

In the U.S., individuals aspiring to become lawyers are required to pass a bar examination to gain admission to the bar and receive their legal practice license. These exams are typically overseen by state or territorial agencies, often under the jurisdiction of state supreme courts.

Most states incorporate components developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) into their exams. Forty-one jurisdictions have implemented the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), which exclusively consists of components designed by the NCBE.

This year’s results arrived on April 15, showing Khanh had scored 334 out of 400.

As regulated in Texas, a score of 270 is the minimum required, while a score of 330 or above places a candidate in the top 1% nationally.

"The exam was very challenging," Khanh said. "I did not imagine such a high score."

Brian Phan, Khanh's classmate at the Texas Tech University School of Law, said he was not surprised by her results.

Having witnessed her studying and preparing for the law exam, Brian described her as "a focused and resilient warrior" when faced with an overwhelming amount of work. "With all that effort, I was sure Khanh could do it," he said.

Khanh was born in Dong Nai Province, which borders Ho Chi Minh City. She and her family moved to California when she was in primary school.

In eighth grade, Khanh moved to Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, where she has lived since.

She later chose to study Business Administration with a major in Accounting at the University of Texas at Arlington. During an internship at a real estate law firm, Khanh was advised to switch to law.

She became interested in the notion and felt an urge to step out of her comfort zone. Eventually, she enrolled in law school at Texas Tech University.

"At that time, only my family knew and I did not dare to tell any of my friends because I was afraid I couldn't handle it," she recalled.

Tran Chau Kim Khanh on the day of graduating from Law School, Texas Tech University. Photo courtesy of Khanh

Tran Chau Kim Khanh on the day of graduating from Law School, Texas Tech University. Photo courtesy of Tran Chau Kim Khanh

Khanh said that in her community it was widely considered that the field of law was only for native English speakers, as English proficiency is crucial to understanding the terminology. And a deep understanding of American politics, society and history is also crucial.

In the U.S., anyone with a bachelor's degree can pursue a law degree, provided they pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Without a background in the field, which most law school candidates do have, Khanh was determined to study diligently and strategically.

She understood nothing in her Constitutional Law class during her first year.

Despite living in the U.S. for over a decade by that time, she still did not fully understand the Constitution and government structure, so she had to research, read more books, and she eventually learned to explain it simply and clearly, in a way that made it easy to understand. She also often asked the advice of seniors who had gotten As in the subject in order to learn their most effective methods.

She then received an A for Constitutional Law. She even scored the highest out of 55 students in her class.

Additionally, Khanh became fascinated by the Socratic method taught in law school. Her teacher would lead the lesson by asking stimulating questions, and students actively discussed them together and asked their own questions to expand their knowledge. Thanks to this, she said, the atmosphere in the classroom was always lively, which helped students actively seek knowledge and remember lessons more effectively.

Last year, Khanh graduated early with a GPA of 3.6/4. She also earned a master’s in economics with a perfect GPA.

With her good grades and working for the school's law journal via authoring articles and providing research, Khanh was chosen as a candidate for the on-campus interview program by Big Law, which refers to the 100 largest law firms in the U.S.

After several rounds, Khanh was one of two students from her school to get an internship at the global law firm Holland & Knight, which operates in over 250 areas of law.

She said that major law firms select students with high grades from the start to train them to become official lawyers, and working at a Big Law firm at an early stage provided her a very good opportunity.

During more than two months at Holland & Knight, she familiarized herself with various areas of law, learned about the company culture, and practiced social etiquette with clients -- everything from dining, drinking wine, to enjoying music and watching sports. She was also paid about $4,200 per week.

After graduating, Khanh immediately began preparing for the bar exam, intensively studying for 10 weeks. She usually studied from noon to 4 a.m., allocating little time for food and exercise.

For each session, she studied for many hours straight, repeatedly reading thousands of laws and practicing essay and multiple-choice questions.

She said the bar exam tests knowledge in 16 law subjects that candidates must remember completely, so diligent preparation is the only way. "The stress was so intense that after the exam, I couldn't sleep in my own house anymore," Khanh said.

The exam took place over two days. On the first day, she had to complete eight essays testing theoretical knowledge, reasoning skills, and the application of law in real-life situations.

There were two scenario questions that presented a massive amount of information, including factual patterns, legal positions, and issues to be resolved. Khanh found that the most challenging aspect was to read, process the information, and write 10-15 pages quickly for each question over the 90-minute session.

On the second day, she had to answer 200 multiple-choice questions in six hours. Each question, half a page long, tested "exceptions to exceptions."

After passing the exam Khanh had learned profoundly about her field and was not lacking any necessary information.

In October, Khanh will return to work officially at Holland & Knight, assuming a role in consulting and resolving business law issues. From now until then, she wants to volunteer in Vietnam and several African countries.

Looking back on her journey into and efforts in the legal profession, Khanh described her feelings as "bittersweet." "Bitter because I spent half my youth burying my nose in books and studying, but sweet because I've reaped success on the path I chose," she said.

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