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.
Check out the incredible Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund speaking at the CUNY School of Law commencement. From minute 1:01:48-1:02:13 she reminds you that, while the movement needs you, right now we need you to focus on studying for the bar exam.
Most bar review companies will tell you that you can memorize from their outlines alone, and making your own study materials is a waste of time. Most people, however, find that relying on the bar review outlines is not enough; they have to make the materials their own in some way. It’s important to engage in a process of making/working with your study materials every day. Think ahead to the last two weeks when you will be memorizing. What do you want to have ready for that process?
You will not have time to create study materials at the end (and use them), so you have to make them now. You will learn a tremendous amount of material with each new lecture, and you have to be finished with your study materials before you leave each subject (which means every 1-3 days, depending on the subject). This means that you need to work quickly and efficiently.
What you did in law school to make the perfect outline, or the best flashcards, may not work now. Don’t strive for perfection. Strive for usable. If you’re spending more than three hours per day on creating study materials, you need to change your approach. You also need to leave time for practice questions every day.
Use the bar review lectures as a guide for what you should focus on. Only go to the bigger outlines for reference. The lecture handouts will include the most heavily tested material, and that should be your foundation. As you practice essays and MBEs, you should add rules that you learn to your outline/flashcards/charts.
Make the study materials that work for you and your method of learning. That might mean that you have more than one kind of study material – an outline and a large flow chart, for example. It is best for the learning process if you make it yourself. But, if that takes too much time, or if didn’t make your own study materials during law school, find a way to make the bar review company’s materials your own in some way. The process of working through the lecture material after the lecture will help you synthesize and solidify the material. That process of learning, understanding, and beginning to internalize the material is the first step towards memorizing.
The key is to find a balance – don’t skip the study materials, but don’t spend all of your time trying to make them perfect.
Most commercial bar review courses begin this week for students studying for the Uniform Bar Exam. The first week or so can feel overwhelming. (It can also feel like it’s not as bad as you predicted. Don’t get too comfortable, the work will increase.)
Make sure that you spend time getting to know your bar companies’ website and the materials that they have sent you. You want to familiarize yourself with the resources you have, so that you know everything that is available to you. Only then can you make informed decisions about what will work for you and what will not.
Most bar review companies will assign more work than will be possible to complete. Remember that your goal is to do three things each day: watch the lecture, make study materials, and do practice questions.
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.