I received this timely and topical letter a few weeks ago:
Now is the time of year when all the 3L’s at every law school are enjoying the time between graduation and starting their bar review (at least for me). Do you have any advice for us on how to keep our sanity during this 10 week adventure and not go crazy or over-stress when the big day finally comes?
It got me thinking about my own bar exam experience – and brought back a memory from my law school days.
Close to graduation time, I was having a final meeting with a professor with whom I’d written a journal article. It was a pleasant meeting – the article was in print and he was pleased with it. He even said he was going to use it as part of his syllabus for a seminar. I was feeling as close to a super-star as I ever got in law school.
At some point I confided my concerns about the approaching bar exam. I told him it gave me butterflies in my stomach.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Only the real knuckle-draggers fail the bar exam.”
We shared a laugh, I shook his hand and left his office, but I knew – more than anything in the world – that I needed to pass that exam. I didn’t want to be a “knuckle-dragger.” I’m guessing you don’t want to be one, either.
The bar is a weird exam. It goes on forever, deals mostly with trivia, and no one cares how they do on it – you only have to pass.
In real world terms, the exam is entirely useless. At best, it gives you a smattering of a details from state law. At worst, it’s downright bizarre. I remember blowing a practice question because – it turns out – smoke-damaged – not charred – wood, didn’t count as evidence of arson in NY State. The wood had to be burned by a flame. Or something like that. I stared at the answer, wondering how anything so impossibly obscure could make it onto a statewide, standardized exam. But there were plenty of questions like that.
Anyway – first, here’s my exam-taking advice, handed down from my old roommate at Harvard, who went to Columbia Law School and got his JD a couple years before me. My psychotherapist advice will follow.
The trick to studying for the bar is not to bother with bar review lectures – they are a waste of time. Just take all the study materials and give yourself four hours to study them every weekday morning, from 9 am – 1 pm, for about three or four weeks.
Read the outlines front to back, slowly and carefully, then do all the practice tests, and outline each and every one of the practice essay questions. Check everything, make sure you understand anything you got wrong on the practice tests and – voila! You’ll do fine. In fact, you’ll be over-prepared, which is the idea.
At some point you’ll realize you know everything – even the bar only covers a discrete universe of information. I was so over-prepared that I spent the last few days before the exam hanging out at my cousin’s beach house, relaxing. By that time, I knew what I needed to know and it was getting repetitious.
If you follow this method, you will most likely follow in our paths and do extremely well on the bar exam – better than you have to do.
For years now, I’ve shared this advice with friends and clients. To a man, they have rejected it.
One client, last week, said “that’s not going to happen.”
I asked why, and she said “because I could never do that.”
Now I’ll put my psychotherapist hat back on, and talk about the infantilizing effects of legal education.
The entire law school process, and the profession itself, is extremely competitive. Everyone is competing with everyone else to do basically the same thing.
No one wants to be a “knuckle-dragger,” so you play it safe, and do what everyone else is doing.
Your fear of being singled out as a failure, especially on the last big event, the bar exam, is so terrifying that it regresses you into a child, who collapses into helplessness. So you sign up for bar review and vow to do whatever they tell you.
I’m scared. Hold my hand. Walk me to lecture, spoon-feed me the material. I’ll be good. Promise me, if I do everything you say, I’ll pass.
Bar review isn’t that different from law school itself. Going to lectures in school is a waste of time, too. It would be more efficient to teach yourself the same material.
I knew a guy first year at NYU who skipped lectures. Instead, he bought commercial outlines, did the reading, and outlined answers to old exam questions. It took a lot of nerve to break the rules like that and follow his own instinct, but it paid off. He got straight A’s and transferred to Yale. If I had law school to do again, that’s how I’d do it – like a grown-up.
The problem was that I was too scared back then. I wanted reassurance that if I did exactly what I was told I would be okay – I wouldn’t be a knuckle-dragger.
Sure – we all learn differently. If you like watching a long, drawn-out lecture instead of reading the same material out of a book, be my guest.
On the other hand, if you have trouble staring at something complicated in a book, figuring it out on your own and writing about it – well, I’m sorry, but that’s what lawyers do for a living. They don’t sit in lectures being spoon fed material by kindly professors charging two hundred dollars per hour.
Most of the people who fail the bar exam aren’t really knuckle-draggers. They’re students who take the regression to child-like helplessness to the extreme. They employ wishful thinking, pretending that if they go through the motions of child-like obedience – show up at each and every bar review lecture and sit quietly doing what they’re told – they will automatically pass.
That’s not going to happen.
You have to actually address this material as an adult, on your own terms, and learn it.
Another major reason why people fail the bar is that they create an unconscious distraction. Suddenly, just as you’re preparing for this exam, you have the big breakup with your girlfriend and have to walk around staring into the middle distance muttering fragments of French poetry. That sort of thing.
If you don’t want to take the bar, don’t take it. But make that decision consciously – don’t design an unconscious distraction to hide that you’re terrified to face this very adult challenge. People break up, or sustain whatever personal life upset comes their way, and they still pass the bar exam. You just contain your feelings and focus on the matter at hand.
Why would you regress into helplessness or create a distraction to avoid studying for the bar? Probably because you’re afraid, deep down, that you’re not very good at this stuff.
It’s worth at least posing the question: if you’re terrible at this sort of thing – memorizing masses of dull material and spitting it back out in a lightly re-processed form – why are you pursuing law? You’re only going to get out there and find yourself reading reams of not-always-scintillating material, then turning it into memos, briefs, contracts and the like.
The all-too-common answer is “because I have loans to pay off.” That answer reduces you to a helpless indentured servant, working off your debts to purchase freedom.
If that’s why you’re taking the bar, it’s no wonder you’re not really into it. But you might as well own your feelings, so you can try to contain them, and get on with the task at hand, which is a lot of dull memorization and the endless grind of practice tests.
Don’t worry – if you fail the bar, it doesn’t mean you’re a knuckle-dragger. But it might suggest you’re not acting like a fully aware, autonomous adult.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)