Self-Discipline Tips for the Bar Exams

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I give a bar exam lecture on organization. My thesis is that if you organize your life and study routine, a well organized exam approach and answer will follow. I developed this topic after years of noting the differences between those students who passed and those who didn't. A key difference is discipline. Students who passed exhibited the necessary discipline to order their priorities and organize their lives around meeting those priorities. Their discipline extended to the design, implementation and maintenance of a study regimen. Discipline, therefore, is essential. Once you have adopted the Yes I Can attitude, you must discipline yourself to identify and plan for all the things that you can and must do to pass the bar.

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Self-Discipline Tips for the Bar Exams

Expect the Unexpected

You can encounter the unexpected at any time. You walk outside to find your car being towed. Your first cousin on your mother's side was arrested last night for armed robbery. A desirable though unexpected event can be as potentially disruptive as an undesirable one. After years of trying, you have just learned that you are pregnant. While you may not be able to control the occurrence or the consequences of the unexpected event, especially a traumatic one, you may be able to manage your reaction to it. One aspect of the bar exam preparation period is being ready to avoid crises. After helping hundreds of students prepare for the exam, I have identified certain predictable crises that may disrupt your work. I list here those crises and suggested plans of avoidance.

Your finances. Own up to your debts and face-off with the "collectors." Do not ignore them, otherwise they will act up when it is least advantageous to you, the Tuesday before the Wednesday MBE. Many creditors may be sympathetic to a bar candidate's request for forbearance while you struggle to become a more economically viable member of society. Work out a payment plan in advance of the preparation period to commence after the exam. If the matter has to go to court, get there sooner rather than later. Judges had to take the bar exam, too.

My Cousin Vinny. You are a lawyer because you have a law degree. You are not an attorney because you have yet to be admitted to practice. If Cousin Vinny or Brother Leroy is arrested, you can give your family the name and telephone number of a good private attorney, the Office of the Public Defender, or the Legal Aid Society. You can stop by the home to give comfort. You do not, however, wait hours at Central Booking or Arraignments to talk to Vinny or Leroy. Even if you had the time (which you do not), you should not because you are not his attorney and there is no client/cousin privilege.

A wedding in the family. If it is your wedding, wait until the exam is well over. Even if there is a fair amount of pressure being put on you to have the wedding during the time you are studying for the bar exam, resist it. The wedding plans will inevitably eat into your study plans.

If you are a bridesmaid or groomsman in someone else's wedding, make your apologies up front for being generally unavailable, and then ask the happy couple to schedule events as convenient to your schedule as possible. If they cannot or will not, beg off and give a nice gift.

Illness. Make sure that in responding to this event you distinguish what you can do from what you want to do or think you should do. With the exception of a hospitalized child or other relative, you may be able to work your study schedule around visiting hours. It may sound weird, but having to study for the exam during an illness of a loved one may turn out to be a blessing. Work is good therapy; so is study. The exam may give you the structure needed to amass the strength to see your loved one to health and yourself through the exam.

The "I've been meaning to's." If you have been meaning to get a fire extinguisher for your home, do it. If you have been meaning to get the car fixed, do it. If you have been meaning to get that mammogram, do it. Do it, before it does you.

Early in your preparation period, give yourself a Junk Week, a time to do all things most likely to lurk in the background waiting to trip you up. Make a list of all these things, the longer the better. Then go down the list. In my case, there is a special method to this madness. I make sure to hit my favorite stores. I spend at least an hour in each one of them, rolling an enormous shopping cart up and down every aisle. I look at almost everything stocked in office supplies, and in drug and household supplies. I spend about $75 and come home with a three-month supply of ziploc bags, Tylenol, vitamins, dental floss, three-ring binders, legal pads, pens and pencils, paper clips and at least a gallon of laundry detergent.

This is my way of tricking myself into thinking that I am safe from all easily avoidable minor crises. The trick often works, leaving me with only those not-so minor crises that will happen no matter how well I prepare. There are some events, like the unexpected death of a loved one, a serious fire, the birth of children, that may so profoundly influence you that you may not be able or desire to return to equilibrium to meet the challenge of the bar exam. You must judge your abilities in the face of these events and decide whether it may be better to deal with the bar exam at another time, if ever (and that's o.k., too).

Expect the Expected

Other priorities will compete for our time and attention during this period. There may be significant others, adults and children, full-time or part-time work, community, political or religious activities. Some of these activities can be put on hold during your study period, others cannot. Here are some ways to ensure that the bar exam priority remains one of your main priorities.

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Relationships. Some view familial relationships as hindrances during this time. Relatives make demands on your time and whatever little money you may have. Children recognize only their needs. Significant others seem to be jealous of the time you spend away from them. When these demands seem most oppressive, you should take a moment to look at it their way.

For the last three or so years, you have been away from them, if not physically then mentally, as you worked to complete law school. You made new friends and were involved in new experiences not often shared by loved ones. In many ways, you have gone through a subtle change in the way you speak, think, even look. Although they could not be prouder of their lawyer, they have missed you and want to be with you. Although they may seem demanding now, they have usually been there for you. They have loved you, guided you, prayed for you Qike my brother Marvin), supported you, and given you money. While you might not have recognized it as such, they have also given you structure and a tangible reason for passing. Consider yourself, therefore, advantaged in having these relationships. Cultivate them, especially during this period. Here are ways.
  1. Set weekly times during which you give them your undivided attention. Explain their time in the context of your other competing priorities. This affirms their value to you while informing them of your need to attend to the other priority of passing the bar exam.
  2. Tell them exactly what you are going through. Let them hear a bar review tape or come to a lecture so that they can appreciate the magnitude of this challenge. You will probably only have to do this once. Make sure they have something to do to occupy themselves while you are away studying.
  3. Give yourself over to them for one or two full days during this period. Let them plan for it, look forward to it, exhaust themselves during it and leave you alone after it.
  4. If all else fails, ask them, "How many times do you want me to go through this?"

Work (as in, for a living). If at all possible, do not! If you need to work to eat, to support self and others, then you must. If you are working long hours to support a grand lifestyle, you must decide whether the bar exam is your priority. There is so much to learn during this period that you need all possible additional hours for study.

If you do work, turn that into an advantage, too. You need not worry about getting a job after the exam. You may not need to interrupt your study routine to interview or to distribute resumes. You probably have a ready-made schedule to work around. To keep the bar a priority, adopt similar strategies as those used in your personal relationships:
  1. Talk to your colleagues and supervisors. Make them a part of the process. Assure them that you will get your job done, but that you are on a tight schedule from which you do not want to deviate. Use your commute, your breaks and lunch times to study.
  2. Save up your vacation time so that you can take it all at once, usually towards the end of the study period as bar review courses and your own schedule will require more flexibility and time.
  3. If your colleagues are not collegial about your bar preparation, at least you will know that. The key is to bring it all into the open if possible. You should not expend energy keeping your preparation for the exam a secret.

Community/religious/political Some things have to give. You may have an untapped reservoir of surplus energy, but it is not inexhaustible. If you must involve yourself in these activities during this period, again, explain the other pulls on your time to those involved. Ask for diminished involvement with the promise of greater participation after the exam. Note that I differentiate between religious (church, temple, mosque-related) and spiritual activities. Postpone the former, protect the latter. Nurture your spirit, especially now.

Me, myself and I: You must also manage yourself:

A sound mind inhabits a sound body. Exercise regularly; eat regularly; get enough sleep. Listen to your body. From little aches do big pains grow. Get a physical. Check out that ache. Get your teeth fixed. Anticipate your reaction to stress and minimize its disruptive capacity; keep two pairs of glasses, dentures, etc.

Don't judge a book by its cover. Get a hair style that will last with the least amount of grooming, e.g., braids; trim nails and use clear nail polish (if you must); adopt a low maintenance uniform, e.g., baggy jeans and tee shirts.

A “Yes I Can” attitude without discipline is like one hand clapping. It does not work. Discipline allows you to balance priorities and to maintain that balance, especially when challenged. During the weeks before the exam, you may experience severe mood swings. There is the potential for feeling incredible elation one minute (possibly because of graduation), and devastating anxiety the next, probably caused by the fast approaching bar exam. If we learn to manage that which we can, life's crises or unexpected events may not be so disruptive of our plans that we are unable to recover our balance.

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About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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