I am an Associate Professor at CUNY School of Law, and I co-direct the bar support programs. I've helped many students pass the bar exam. I'm hoping to share some of what I've learned through that process, and help give you the confidence that you, too, can pass the bar exam. I also want you to know that the struggle will be worth it in the end.
During the bar study period it’s critical to plan everything. Time management, scheduling, and self discipline are skills that are central to success on the bar. Fortunately, they are also skills that you likely already possess as an activist.
You will have to come up with a plan of attack for this exam. You will need to figure out what study materials you need to make and/or purchase. You will need to choose places to study and come up with a daily study schedule. You will also need to schedule basically every minute of the ten weeks that you will be studying.
I suggest that you approach this process as you would any organizing campaign. Think about your goal – to pass the bar exam. Then think about what you need to do in the short, medium, and long term to achieve that goal. Also think about who your allies will be, and who is likely to hinder your efforts.
You need to create a bar study schedule that works best for you. Many people find success in a regularized schedule that has them doing essentially the same thing at the same time each day. Other people find this to be too boring and they need to switch things up. Bar study plans vary. The key is to have a plan, and stick to it (modifying it when necessary to make it a more successful plan).
One of the things that sometimes gets activists in trouble is that they are incredibly involved in their communities. They are part of multiple groups, or hold demanding leadership positions in active organizations. It’s important to disconnect from these rules fully for the bar study period. Social justice activists are often not good at saying no. So, when they say they will cut back or only limit themselves to one of two tasks, they often find themselves being asked to do more than they had originally contemplated. It’s better to completely cut ties for the bar study period. There will be plenty of time afterwards and you will be in s much better position to help. If you don’t give yourself the time you need, you will only end up needing more time in the long run to retake the exam.
It’s important to make plans to disconnect. That means talking to others and putting systems in place to take care of what your would normally take care of. That way, you won’t be fielding last minute calls because no one knows how to do that things you are usually responsible for. It will also give you piece of mind because you can trust that things will get done in the way you would want you to get done.
You should actually think of this process as movement building. Too often activist organizations run on personality and max out and burn out key leaders. Sharing knowledge and deepening the skills of multiple members will lead to more sustainable organizations and will make the work, and the people, stronger. You will soon be able to return to the work more focused and free from the anxiety of law school and bar study.
Since it’s Mother’s Day season, it seems fitting to take a moment to honor the parents who study for the bar exam. Parents who study for the bar have an extra challenge ahead of them. How do you find childcare? How do you manage to spend meaningful time with your children, while maintaining a rigorous study schedule?
First of all, remember that you are in it for the long haul, and your kids will be better for it in the long run. You are a role model for your kids, and they will grow up seeing the value of an education. (Plus whenever they slack off in the future, you can remind them that you went to law school and studied for the bar exam while simultaneously taking care of all of their needs.)
Second, make your kids part of your study process. You should explain to them what is going on (even if they’re too young to understand). Many parents find that their kids like to do homework alongside their parent. Provide them with small ways to help you study.
The most important thing is to make your study schedule in a way that allows you to have meaningful family time every day. Some people set aside dinner and bedtime, while others set aside morning time or afternoon time. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. What matters is that you give yourself that time and push out the guilty feeling that you should be studying instead. Many parents successfully study for the bar, and you can too.
Were you a parent when you studied for the bar? Leave your story and words of wisdom in the comments!
Graduation season is upon us! Congratulations to everyone graduating from law school this month!
Getting into the celebratory mood can be difficult when you have the bar exam ahead of you. However, it’s important to take some time to celebrate, and reflect on how much you have accomplished. Law school has been hard. There were moments when you thought it was impossible. But you did it!
Remember those first semester exams? It seemed inhumane to be required to memorize that much material, spot that many issues, and write so much in such a short time. But you did it!
Remember learning to use Lexis and Westlaw? Remember learning to write your first legal memo? It was like learning a foreign language. And you did it!
Take some time to celebrate how far you have come. It’s also important to let your loved ones revel in your graduation. It can be as much for them, as it is for you. Take the time to thank them for their support (and remind them that they are going to need to continue to give you that space and support for a few more months).
And anytime you’re feeling like bar study is impossible, remember that you also thought surviving 1L was impossible, and yet, you persisted!
Seek out the help you need early, and often. You need to prepare your loved ones for the bar study period. They will be thrilled to celebrate your graduation with you and they will think you are done. They have seen you stress out about exams throughout law school, and they have watched you succeed. They won’t understand the intensity of the bar study period. Even loved ones who themselves have taken the bar are unlikely to remember just how much they needed to study.
You will have time to spend with your loved ones and doing fun things, but you will have to be very disciplined about your time and schedule your activities carefully.
I have seen many students fail the bar because they were not given the space they need by their families. It is not enough for your loved ones to say they support you. They must do so actively. That means giving you the time and space you need to focus only on your studies. If would be a nice bonus if they took care of meal prep and laundry for you too. Talk to them early, and often, and keep reminding them of the task you are facing.
Before you dive head first into bar study, take some time to remind yourself of why you started on the law school journey in the first place. It’s been years since you sat down to write your personal statement for your law school application. You’re going to need to draw on that initial passion in order to get through the next couple of months.
Dig out that old personal statement (you can probably get it from LSAC if you don’t still have it somewhere), write a letter to yourself, or create some art as a reminder of where you want to be once the bar exam is behind you.
Studying for the bar exam can be a roller coaster of emotions. You will want something on hand to remind you of your end goal when you begin to feel overwhelmed, or like studying for the bar is too divorced from the real work you should be doing to be worth it.
It is important to give the bar exam the respect it deserves. This is not like any other exam you have ever taken. You well need to put in more work than you think you do.
DO NOT WORK
Recognizing that this is a privileged thing to say, it is still very important. It doesn’t matter whether you have worked all through law school. It doesn’t matter if you’ve always worked. You will not be giving yourself a good chance to pass the bar if you work.
This is a short period of your life – 10 weeks. Try saving up money for a bar review course and to live off of during this period. There are also banks that offer bar study loans. Borrow from loved ones if you can. Barter for things that you need – you can repay everyone when you are a lawyer.
Many law students support their families while going to school, financially and emotionally. This won’t work during bar study. You need to come up with a plan so that others are not financially dependent on you during this period. That will require some strategic thinking and advanced planning. But it is a necessity.
This is the time to invest in yourself. You will be much better able to care for your loved ones and your community once you have passed the bar and landed your dream job. Let them care for you now.
Students often ask whether they really need to take a commercial bar review course. The answer is yes. The bar review course provide a great deal of resources that you will need to succeed.
First, bar review companies provide you with the law that you need to know. They have studied bar exams more than anyone, and will pinpoint what you really need to know and will help you prioritize your studying. This is especially critical if you are taking the Uniform Bar Exam because the National Conference of Bar Examiners use a variety of sources for determining the “general principles of law” that they test on. There is no one place you can go to learn the law, absent using a commercial bar review course. NCBE suggests that one look at their older essay exams to determine the sources of law that are used. However studying solely from past essays will only give you a limited picture of what can be tested and will not be sufficient. You need a more comprehensive source, which is where the bar review companies come in.
Additionally, the commercial bar review companies provide you with practice materials. The key to passing the bar exam its strategic practice. The bar review companies will give you essays, MBEs, and MPTs to practice from.
This is far from an ideal or equitable system, but it is the system we have. Unless someone has the resources to create an entirely open source bar review company, applicants must pay for a commercial bar review course in order to have a good shot at passing the bar the first time.
This post goes out to those of you who love someone who is studying for the bar. No one is their best selves when they are studying for the bar. Your loved one will need space and time to study. They will also probably need you to cut them some slack with the everyday chores of life.
The best thing you can do for your loved one is to leave them alone, and periodically do something nice for them. Motivation, affirmation, and encouragement are key to the bar study process.
That is how you can help – your bar studier will need to be regularly reminded that they are awesome and smart. Simple things like leaving post-it notes with encouraging phrases like “You Can Do It!” around their living and studying spaces can go a long way. Flowers, chocolates, and massages can’t hurt either.
Don’t worry, once they get past the bar exam, they will return to their lovable selves. They are under a lot of pressure now, but eventually that pressure releases.
Over at the Legal Skills Prof Blog (a blog that I read daily, and very much appreciate), there is a post that focuses on the incredible pressure that law graduates feel to pass the bar on the first time. The post highlights a quote from an article on Above the Law about retaking the bar.
I’m grateful that the post acknowledges the outsized pressure that law school graduates feel to pass the bar on the first try. I have often heard people speak as though their careers and lives will be over if they don’t pass the bar the first time. That isn’t true, of course, but the pressure is very real.
However, the author of the post points to law school admissions as the solution – simply stop admitting people who are unlikely to pass the bar. That analysis shifts the focus to the wrong place. Yes, law schools have a responsibility not to take money and 3-4 years from people who are unlikely to succeed in law school and on the bar exam. And, yes, law schools have a responsibility to give their students the tools they need to succeed on the bar exam.
But, it’s not law school admissions that has created the overwhelming pressure to pass the bar on the first try. The fact that first time bar passage and employment stats are seen as the only metrics of whether a law school is worthy of existence is the problem. U.S. News, law journals, and other media outlets only focus on a school’s first time bar pass rate, as if passing the bar on the second try means you shouldn’t have been admitted to law school in the first place. That hurts our students and alums. Even the ABA is coming around to recognizing that passage rates of repeat takers matters.
We all know the stories of famous people who took the bar more than once (JFK Jr., Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.) We need to start normalizing retaking the bar. Often my graduates who need to retake the bar are shocked to find out that some of the people working in their law firms and some of their faculty members didn’t pass the bar on the first try. But they only find that out after they have failed the bar and had to “come out” to those around them. We all seem to buy in to the notion that first time pass rates are all that matters. That idea is harmful to so many of our recent graduates.
Of course, we should always strive to help our students pass the bar on the first try. But, it is only through destigmatizing taking the bar more than once that we will begin to make a dent in the enormous pressure we put on recent graduates to pass the bar on the first time. That pressure itself can lead to tremendous anxiety, which gets in the way of achieving a passing score. Passing the bar on the first try is as much a psychological feat as it is an academic one.
We owe it to our students and recent graduates to do better. We also owe it to their future clients to care about the mental health of members of our profession.