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Let positive thoughts about the bar exam process and the future keep you on track

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Taking the Bar Exam

Bar exam preparation—successful bar exam preparation—requires months of full-time work after law school graduation. Law school success requires three years of hard work, four years for part-time students.

Succeeding at your first law job requires intense focus and incredible effort. But in each of these there are silver linings.

Really? How can I possibly think that taking on mountains of work— the marathons that are law school success and bar exam preparation— could possibly coexist with renewal and rejuvenation?

If the world has taught us anything recently, it’s that we may not always—or even usually—control all of what happens to us, but we can often control our reactions. We can make lemonade out of lemons. And, perhaps even more important, we can learn to see lemons as glorious fruit.

Painful experiences often prove to be the most empowering life lessons. Perhaps you’re in the crowd who view having to take a bar exam as a lemon. You may well have important insights into better ways to license attorneys than bar exams. You’re not alone. Researchers are hard at work studying what minimum competency to practice law means and how best to assess it. If you haven’t read it, check out Building a Better Bar.

Law students aren’t yet those who decide licensing requirements. To become a member of the bar when you graduate law school, you must get licensed however your jurisdiction requires.

But you’ll have more and more input into those questions and all sorts of aspects of how to continuously improve our profession.

So keep all your thoughts on bettering the system alive, but don’t let them distract or deter you from your immediate goals. Keep reading, keep thinking, and keep engaged in the governance of our profession. Get licensed as soon as possible after you graduate, and do the best legal work you can.

Think this, not that

To do that, ask yourself this question: How will I approach this crazy, rough bar prep phase—or the challenges of finishing law school or the battles of first law jobs?

What will be your daily thought process? How will you react to the struggle, one that’s normal and a necessary part of achieving success? And how will your actions complement, or be thwarted by, your thoughts and wholly understandable inner doubts?

It’s possible that the way you choose to approach the massive challenges ahead may empower you; you may actually take this new phase on as a step toward new and exciting paths.

Consider that renewal can sometimes be found in adopting new ways of
thinking. As examples:

  • I’m such a lazy person bingewatching this show when I should be studying. I’m letting my mind rest and recharge so it’ll have more space to fill with new learning after this well-deserved break.
  • I have to go exercise. How lucky I am that my body is allowing me to move? And exercising now is helping me to study and learn more effectively. It’s a positive outlet for the stress I so legitimately feel right now.
  • I hate cleaning my home. I’m lucky to have housing, and I’ll be healthier, happier, and more productive in an organized space.
  • I can’t believe my professor assigned 50 pages of reading. Doesn’t she realize we have other classes? This professor is hard on us because she believes in us and wants us to be incredible lawyers. The more I read, the better reader I’ll become. And critical reading is to lawyering as catching and throwing are to professional baseball.
  • Why are things so hard? My challenges are huge because I’m doing big things. If I didn’t see what I’m doing as tough, I wouldn’t be appreciating the seriousness of it all. This is difficult, and I can do this. It’ll take a lot of daily, steady work, but I have access to helpful resources, I’m bright and determined, and I can do this.

Have you ever come to a realization that made you view the exact same thing in an entirely new way? Maybe you know a parent who plays music to relax, thinking he’s indulging his own hobby. But at some point, you realize that singing or playing an instrument with his child is helping the child, providing a host of positives.

I always remind students who are parents of studies that show that just reading in front of your children will have a positive impact on helping them achieve academically.

Think differently, then act

When thinking differently is coupled with action, it can be permanently transformative. Some people who legitimately feel physically vulnerable have gained extraordinary confidence from Brazilian ju-jitsu classes for safety and empowerment. In just months—and often despite massive skepticism that new students feel when they begin workshops—they can learn concrete tools, moves, and attitudes that help manage fears and replace them with confidence for life.

Let’s say what you’re thinking is:

  • “I can’t believe I have to take yet another exam. Isn’t passing three or four years of law school classes enough?”
  • Or: “Why didn’t they keep those emergency diploma privilege paths in place so I could just begin working already? All I want to do is give back to the world, and I’m stuck in a two-month bar exam limbo land.”

Legitimate thoughts. (All thoughts are legit!) But where do they get you if you must do this? If they get you to anger, that might be a motivator. But for many, the only place they get you is resentment— too often a mud-like place where all you feel is stuck and sluggish.

What if you could feel good instead of resentful about the process? Maybe you can. Maybe that’s within your control.

Sometimes changing words themselves help change the outcomes. Consider the difference it has made in our world when we discuss “mental health and well being” rather than talking just about “mental illness.”

What would you say if you were advising a classmate on how to make the best of this time? What do you imagine you’d tell yourself a year from now looking back on whatever challenge you’re now facing?

The first key is to reframe negative thoughts into positive ones, just like we did above. Again, that may sound something like rephrasing, “I have to take the darn bar exam” so that it becomes, “I’ve worked this hard so that I get the opportunity to sit for this exam that will allow me a lifetime of rewarding, important work.”

The next key is to take three empowering actions:

  1. Set the stage now. Clear your obligations and make sure you have a safe place to live and study and the means to support yourself during bar prep. If you’re still in law school, talk with your financial aid officer now to put a solid plan in place so that you can live for at least two months after graduation without any income. Note: Maintaining financial health and safety will assist in all challenges, even if you’ve long ago passed the bar exam.
  2. Find your why. This is your purpose and your motivator. Write what drives you to want this law license, or any challenge you’re facing, and keep your words where you’ll see them daily.
  3. Choose gratitude. Remember that your immediate workload, or whatever phase you’re in, is temporary, but studying is a gift. You’ll graduate, and you’ll pass the bar. And you’ll remain a lifelong learner. Learning new facts and skills is how we earn our living as professionals; it’s how we grow and stay relevant.

Slow and steady wins

So it’s OK to be annoyed and frustrated. It’s OK to feel whatever you feel. But consider the power of positive transformations driven by reframing thoughts and then taking decisive strategic actions.

Engage in positive messaging toward yourself as you would to encourage others. Often the most effective actions are daily, regular, and consistent— small, steady actions.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. People who haven’t exercised in years who try to run miles too often feel painful setbacks and give up. Those who start with daily walks, then slowly increase their time and intensity, often persist and prevail.

The same is true with practice tests. If you’re in law school or studying for the bar exam and haven’t yet taken practice exams but you set out to complete a two-day, closed-book simulated exam, you might well get too discouraged to continue. But you’ll get there if you start by struggling through one practice exam daily, even when you think you don’t know the material.

In fact, studies show that’s often a better way to learn what you don’t know and then retain the information.

Then take one more, then another, and keep at it each day—studying sample answers, completing rubrics, and rewriting better answers—building up to two full days of testing.

Your thoughts must say, “I can do this. I can write passing answers within the allotted time, for any and all questions on the exam.” And your actions must build knowledge and knowledge frameworks and refine and improve required skills. That way, you get to where you need to be when it’s time to perform.

I want to say, “Trust me! I’ve taught thousands to pass bar exams nationwide.”

But better advice is, “Consider the evidence and decide for yourself.” Studies resoundingly substantiate that extraordinary power flows from positive thought coupled with strategic action.

We control so much less than we imagine around us. At the same time, we control so many more of our own thoughts than we realize. The actions necessary to achieve our goals often feel like climbing massive mountains—and they may be. But even the highest peaks are conquered one step at a time.

So do you want this? Can you envision yourself as a lawyer or in another professional role using lawyering skills?

Maybe you want to be a business owner or political leader? Try seeing yourself as that powerful person—that lawyer, that leader—then taking the steps needed to be really good at whatever you do.

And thank you! Thank you for all the hard work you’re putting in. You’re our future leaders. You’re the guardians of the rule of law. You’re voices for the voiceless. You’re policy makers. You’re important, and getting your law license is an indispensable step on your very important professional path.

Pursue this phase with as much positivity as you can muster. After the work, pain, and sweat will come the knowledge that you are making a difference.

You’re building a career that will help countless others while supporting yourself and your family.

Every day is building. Even when you feel stuck, lift yourself with uplifting thoughts. Then take slow and steady daily actions to meet your goals. You’ll feel renewed and recharged and ready to meet the present challenges—and to then make and succeed at new goals.

Sara J. Berman Sara J. Berman is a legal education thought leader specializing in student success, teaching and learning, and bar exams. Her most recent book, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, was published in 2019. After decades in faculty and law school leadership positions, Berman is now leading student success research initiatives at the nonprofit AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. The views expressed in this article are Berman’s own.