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Running for my life! How I survived bar prep and the bar exam

Fabiani Duarte

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After twelve hours of essay and memo writing, 200 tricky multiple choice, and the company of about five hundred fellow law school graduates who took the Alabama Uniform Bar Exam this summer, one question kept resounding in conversations and glances exchanged in elevators and the long walks towards our cars in the parking garage of the Montgomery Performing Arts Center:

“Did we pass the bar exam?”

Unfortunately, even though we might have felt like we deserved an answer to that life-changing question right now after two days of tackling the Uniform Bar Exam, my fellow Alabama bar takers and I won’t definitely find out until late September.

I’m not the first nor will I likely be the last “bar survivor” to provide a post-mortem assessment of a bar prep and bar exam experience. However, as they say, “If I knew then what I knew now…” I might have done certain things a little differently, and I’m grateful I approached others in a certain way.

And if I had a little brother or sister or a classmate I would want to see succeed on the bar, here’s what I’d want them to know.

Control what you can

There are certainly some aspects of the bar exam you can’t control, including how much the testing hall will feel like a meat freezer, how many times a helicopter or a flash thunderstorm will hover over your testing site and mess with your focused concentration, or whether that free lunch that a school provides their students ends up giving  them food poisoning (yep, that happened …fortunately not to me. #BARfgate…Credit for the creative hashtag goes to my friend and fellow law grad Leslie Tilson). You can mitigate these things by wearing a jacket or sweater, bringing some earplugs (nearly everyone had these in my exam), or buying your own lunch from a reputable establishment.

Then there are some fundamentals that you can tackle in smart and strategic ways.

If you don’t live in the city where the bar exam will be given, you can be thoughtful in choosing where you’ll be staying the nights of the exam. If the location of the exam happens to be in a convention center with surrounding or connected hotels, I highly recommend that you make a reservation for your room a good six months before your exam so that you can avoid the uncertainty of finding place to stay during these very important days of your life. Not having to worry about fighting traffic or struggling to find a parking space on both mornings of the test was a huge stress reliever and time-saver for me.

Right around the time I booked my hotel room, I was listening to a social science podcast (The Hidden Brain) that discussed a study about people’s sleeping habits in new places. The study tackled the reason for which many people struggle with getting a good night’s sleep in a hotel or a new location the first night of their stay. One possible explanation is that humans have a pre-historic tendency to keep our minds “half-awake” while sleeping in unfamiliar habitats. The scientists explained that this occurs in animals too, perhaps because they instinctively are monitoring any danger that might be lurking in an unknown place.

Thus, one way to combat having a less-than-restful night when you’re away from home before a big job interview, an important meeting, or a big test like the bar is to get to the hotel or place where you’ll be staying one night early. By allowing your mind to “adapt” to new surroundings and get that first bad night of sleeping out of way one day ahead of time, it’s much more likely that you will be on-your-game on “game day.”

By I traveling down to Montgomery from my home in Huntsville on Sunday night for the exam that began on Tuesday morning, I truly felt like I was paving my path toward success.

Getting to the hotel and exam site (which happened to be conveniently connected) a day early also gave me a chance to scope out the actual hall where I would be taking the exam, to figure out where I would be having breakfast each day, to find where it would be best to grab lunch during our short one-hour break, and to see how best to beat the lunch rush.

If you end up taking a commercial bar prep course – and I strongly urge that you do – a big and critical part of bar prep is watching the lectures. In my hometown, there were no live classes offered, so I watched lectures on my laptop every morning.

Although my parents are amazing and absolute saints when it came to giving me a place to retreat and focus for the bar after my law school graduation, I knew I needed to periodically cloister myself away from them, the doorbell, visitors, the phone ringing, and other distractions that find a way to add up. So I looked for a back-up study space and ended up asking my church if I could use an empty classroom during the week. They kindly agreed and I made it through all 70-plus hours of lectures in a quiet room that became my office for the summer.

Being able to choose whether to stay home or to get away to another place if I needed to made a world of difference and again, reminded me that I was in control of my summer and this rigorous program.

There are other circumstances not connected to the actual exam or your preparation that will come up that you probably won’t be able to control because of their magnitude, and you need to prepare for those realities. As you know, all bar-takers are encouraged to treat their bar prep time as sacrosanct. “Be dead to the world,” “Turn off your phone for two months,” “Tell your friends and family not to disturb you unless it’s an absolute emergency,” and “Spend every breathing moment studying,” are all comments and admonitions I heard as I prepared to enter bar prep.

A lot of this advice sounds draconian, but most of it comes from solid experience. The bar is, after all, one of the most, if not the most, important tests of your life. It requires you to recall massive amounts of information. You have to make the bar your primary focus. But since you don’t live in a vacuum, you have to prepare for those unexpected and sometimes unsettling surprises.

For example, a week into bar prep, a very close friend of mine passed away. I was asked to offer one of the eulogies at his funeral. As you can imagine, my friend’s death was not only emotionally taxing, but it also ate into my super-packed daily bar prep schedule and my ability to complete the required assignments. Suffice it to say that it took me more than a couple of days to get back on track and recover from this situation that was out of my control.

So, again, control the things you can – you can control most of them. But also account for those unexpected things that are out of your control. Although you might not be able to do something about them whether they’re deaths or breakups or natural disasters, you can do something in anticipation for them, which brings me to my next point.

Start early … but not necessarily how you think

So I don’t mean that you need to start studying for the bar over Christmas of your 3L year. However, I do wish I had started before the official start date of my bar prep course. It’s not that two months wasn’t enough time; it’s just two months is exactly the right amount of time but stuff happens and some days don’t go as planned for x/y reason, so you have less than two months. Building in some days of buffer, even if just at the beginning would have helped me ease into what everyone expects to be an intense review.

I ended up taking the Barbri bar prep course and must say I was very pleased. I’ll talk more about why later.

Update for the 2018-2019 academic year: One of the author’s reasons for choosing that particular provider was because it offered a discount for ABA Premium members. The ABA now offers discounts through multiple bar review providers including Themis, Kaplan, and Quimbee. Check out this chart…

Quimbee Bar Prep Discounts

$300 off Quimbee Bar Review Premium
$100 off Quimbee MBE Review
» Learn more about Quimbee discounts

Themis Bar Review Discounts

Additional $100 discount on Themis Bar Review
Access to the Themis Achievement Package
» Learn more about Themis discounts

Kaplan Bar Review Discounts

$100 off Kaplan Bar Review
$250 off PMBR Supplemental Course
» Learn more about Kaplan discounts

JD Advising Discounts

$100 off JD Advising full bar exam courses
$50 off a single session of Bar Exam Tutoring
» Learn more about JD Advising discounts

Barbri also offers an “Early Start” option which, in hindsight, I think I could have benefited from to get a feel for the comprehensive Barbri approach. Even without the Early Start option, the lectures and all the assignments for the entire summer are made available well before the official launch date of the bar prep program.

Although I spent the two weeks between law school graduation and the kick-off of bar prep moving out of my apartment and getting things in order at home before crawling into my bar prep cave for the summer, I could have easily started earlier than I did and wouldn’t have felt so overwhelmed like I know is common for bartakers. Although three to four hours of lectures in the morning followed by six to nine hours of homework, practice, multiple choice, or essay writing may seem objectively doable, it’s a pretty grueling regimen day in and day out.

Fortunately, one way that I was able to “start early” was through a bar prep class my law school offered during my final semester. Thanks to Professor Kamina Pinder and my law school’s interest in helping our 3Ls experience the elements of the bar ahead of time, the dive into my commercial bar prep course was definitely smoother.

If your school offers a bar prep class, I highly recommend you consider taking it. It’s so important to know what to expect and to dust off the data that’s been piling up in your head for the past three years. And if your school doesn’t offer a bar prep class, encourage them to look into providing their students with this option. Lots of law schools across the country are starting to provide such programs to give their students an edge or at least exposure to what the bar exam looks and feels like.

Lastly, if you’re a 1L or a 2L or even a first semester 3L, “starting early” is something that you can still do in yet another way. When I started law school, I was so preoccupied with figuring out how keep my head above water and trying to survive from day to day, that I didn’t realize that I was already studying for the bar exam.

Yes, this concept might have dawned on you already without saying, but for me, it didn’t really, fully become clear until this past year. As a first- or second-year student I was so concerned about studying to pass a class I didn’t particularly like, making a good grade, or getting a high ranking, that I didn’t necessarily realize that the work I was putting in needed to also be treated as a storing of “quality, well-learned knowledge” in my brain’s bank for me to access at a later date. That’s a fundamental approach to law school that will make bar prep review more of a restrengthening rather than a relearning.

Keep moving … there’s more than one way to win this race

I shared a long table with four other bar “applicants” or “candidates” as we were called. Caroline, the young mom sitting beside me had graduated a few years ago from law school and was working as a juvenile advocate in the state. She would chat with me during the breaks.

On the second morning, she mentioned that her four-year-old had spoken with her on the phone and had asked if “Mommy” had passed the bar yet. After Caroline told her that she still had one more day to go, her daughter replied, “Well, run faster.”

Run faster, indeed! So much of the bar exam is a race against time: six essays in three hours, 1.8 minutes per multiple choice question to be able to get through 200 questions in six hours, and so on. It’s a tall order, but, as you know, it’s not impossible, even if you’re someone like me who reads a little slower or write a little more methodically. Practice truly is the key.

One of the best pieces of advice I received from Joe Roesch, a former classmate, mock trial colleague, and now licensed attorney was, “When you come to a multiple choice question and you don’t know what it’s asking you, get out of there! During the test is not the time to learn material. You either know it by then or you don’t. So move on to where you know you can get some points.”

Basically, keep “running” on this marathon of an exam, even if you get tripped up.

If you’ve made it to or through law school, and even if you aren’t the best of students, you’ve been running a serious race for a long time. You have developed some approaches to learning and studying that work. Don’t be afraid to use that system – be it notecards or an outline format – that has been successful for you; but also don’t be afraid to try something new, recommended or offered by a tried-and-true bar prep course or bar prep class at your law school.

So earlier in this post I mentioned I decided to take the Barbri course. I’m sure there are mountains of compelling statistics and data about the merits of Barbri and other bar prep courses, and I’ll let you check that out on your own.

But one of the main reasons that I chose to take Barbri was because I remembered from my LSAT-taking days how important learning how to take a specific test was. Although I was able to proudly receive my law school diploma, I needed to know more than just the law; I needed to know how to apply a wide swath of the law to a particular configuration that people like the Barbri experts have cracked. Barbri’s successful track record on this helped convince me.

Take advantage of ABA discounts on bar prep

Another reason I chose the Barbri course was because of their exclusive partnership with the ABA Law Student Division.

Update for the 2018-2019 academic year: the ABA now offers discounts through multiple bar review providers including Themis, Kaplan, and Quimbee! Check out ABA’s Bar Prep Provider Program to learn more.

So, in addition to the cost savings that Barbri provides law students through other promotions like early bird specials, this resource for ABA law student members seemed like the right kind of program to get behind. Plus, it’s only right that I experience the course that our Division is encouraging all of our 70,000+ members to consider signing up for.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of my bar prep and bar exam experience was the encouraging wisdom imparted during a course lecture. The professor said, “Don’t forget that the bar exam isn’t something you have to do; it’s something you get to do.” What an important reminder. It helped me embrace the privilege and blessing that this intense two-month immersion and tough two-day exam really are – even if they don’t feel like it. “There are people who didn’t get the opportunities that you got that led you to this moment. Believe it or not, they would love to be in your shoes right now.”

So as you step into those shoes – those bar running shoes – these are my thoughts and words of experience. I hope they help and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Fabiani Duarte Fabiani Duarte is the 2015-2016 Chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division and is a recent graduate of Mercer University’s School of Law. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Christian Ministry and a career with the Air Force JAG Corps. Prior to his current ambitions, Fabiani attended Vanderbilt University, where he created a major that combined communication studies, political science, Spanish, French, and Italian. He has also worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA member where he helped veterans find jobs, receive counseling, and obtain VA benefits.