When I meet with law students, I often ask, “When are you passing the bar exam?” I watch their faces. They’re expecting, “When are you taking the bar exam.”
My twist usually creates a pause, sometimes an awkward smile or nervous laugh, as they realize the underlying assumption. I can see them take a beat as they assess what passing means to them.
Bar passage isn’t an end goal. Few people take and pass bar exams as a purely intellectual exercise. Assuming you pass the MPRE, character and fitness, and any other state-specific requirements, passing the bar exam opens the door to “becoming a lawyer.”
The real question is: Do you truly want to be a lawyer?
Law school “confessions”
There’s a presumption that everyone taking the bar exam wants to pass. That’s not true. Some law students believe they’re not ready to or don’t want to be lawyers, professionals responsible for the lives and livelihoods of others.
Graduating law school and passing a bar exam (unless you’re in Wisconsin and until alternate paths to licensure become widely accepted) aren’t simply steps to getting a decent job.
They’re how we become lawyers, a lifelong identity.
Even those who don’t practice law think of ourselves as lawyers, albeit nonpracticing lawyers.
Some students go to law school to fulfill another’s dream; others pursue law as a placeholder because they haven’t yet found a career path they’re passionate about. Many students “confess” weeks before the bar exam that they don’t want to be lawyers. I say “confess” because it’s too often shared as if it were a shameful secret, reflecting deep imposter syndrome and underlying fear.
But it’s completely legitimate and wholly understandable to not be “ready.” Starting college with an undeclared major is fine; similarly, you don’t have to know what type of law you want to practice when you’re in law school. You don’t even have to want to practice law. Many people very successfully transition into nonpracticing careers, using law degrees to enhance work in business, education, politics, entertainment, and countless other fields.
Finding your why
Identity shifting is a process; it’s not a switch that flips the moment you’re admitted to law school. But it’s much easier to succeed in law school and pass the bar exam if you’re holding onto at least some clear reasons why you really want the license.
If you’re someone “secretly” carrying around a sense that you don’t belong; if you haven’t yet found passion in law or are in law school to fulfill someone else’s dream, know that you’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Talk with a trusted mentor. Read about the lives of many different lawyers. Consider the wide range of influence lawyers have in our society. And find your why.
Maybe it’ll be an elective or clinical course that sparks your passion. Or maybe it’ll be role models you identify with—people who’ve used their legal education to make a difference in our world—who create in you a sense of purpose. Maybe it’s a book or movie about a trial that changed peoples’ lives for the better.
Or maybe it’s everyday lawyers whose advice to families helps make buying a house, getting divorced, or losing a loved one easier.
And know that you aren’t expected to go it alone the minute you pass the bar exam. Considering how competitive law school often is, we’re a strikingly collaborative profession. There are always lawyers willing to mentor recent graduates. There’s a ton of continuing legal education. There are countless guides, training materials, books, and videos, not to mention credible networking and advice you can obtain through responsible social networking.
But the earlier students grapple with their identity transition from student to professional and get comfortable with their why (knowing it will evolve), the better.
Note: It’s important to acknowledge that there are many legitimate reasons law students may feel they don’t belong. Law schools and law students together must work hard to create learning environments in which a diversity of students feel invited to participate authentically in all learning opportunities. And, just as with finding your professional “why,” it can be incredibly helpful to talk through any other law school challenges with a trusted mentor.
Often all you need is one person, one smart, empathic person who knows law school and gets it—someone who gets and supports you. Start with student services, academic support, student organization leaders, or a professor with whom you feel comfortable as resources to help you find someone safe and supportive to talk with.
Back to the future
Preparing for the bar exam and securing your first legal jobs aren’t easy. But they’re much easier if you’re all in.
Being “all in” requires three Ps: preparation, practice, and persistence—all of which are easier if you have goals in sight, believe there’s value in bar studies, and remain positive.
Do you have a professional or career goal to look forward to? Does it help to have a job secured before taking the bar? Yes. For those who are lucky enough—and persistent enough (and, given the job market, it takes both luck and grit)—having something lined up provides a concrete light at the end of the tunnel.
But there are other ways to find light at the end of the legal education tunnel. Start by seeing yourself as a professional. Get comfortable with it. Practice in front of the mirror introducing yourself as the newest member of the bar in your jurisdiction.
As I always say, your law license is a power tool for social change. It’s an investment in yourself—and worth all the effort you’re putting in. Total commitment now will enable you to do good and do well for a lifetime. Believe in what you’re working toward.
Career services professionals often advise students to keep actively looking for jobs until bar prep begins. But once you’re in your two months of total bar immersion, study full time and be all in for bar prep. Keep resumes handy so that you can send one off during a study break if you happen to hear about a position. But defer job hunting until after the bar.
It’ll be much easier to secure a first position if you’ve passed your first bar exam. So focus on bar studies as if nothing else matters. Give it everything you have. When it’s over and you pass, you never have to do it again. But you’ll have the necessary foundation to launch your professional career, to dig in and see which jobs are best fits for you. (And you’ll likely have many different positions through the years.)
Remember that studying for the bar exam can help prepare you for law practice. There’s a lot wrong with the current bar exam, and according to many recent studies (including Building a Better Bar, this sort of high-stakes summative assessment doesn’t adequately measure minimum competence to practice law.
And it doesn’t help us be better lawyers. For starters, law practice is most often open book and isn’t typically “speeded.” Indeed, acting on behalf of a client without looking up rules and taking time to analyze the facts and law would, in most cases, be malpractice.
The Uniform Bar Exam is being updated, and many states are rethinking their own exams. Legal thought leaders are calling for the elimination of bar exams altogether.
But so long as you have to take the bar exam, it’s helpful to find something worthwhile in the process. Try. Try hard. It creates cognitive dissonance to believe something you’re spending so much time and money on isn’t worthwhile. It blocks effective learning to see this massive effort as simply an obligatory and outdated hazing ritual.
So how do you see value in bar preparation? Here are some ideas.
You might see tremendous value in daily, intensive engagement in critical reading and logical analysis. Those skills, along with effective writing, are the tools of our trade.
You’re starting and cementing a lifelong habit of continuous improvement in critical reading, knowledge acquisition, and problem solving. You can see value in affirming your ability to withstand high-pressure situations.
Dealing with courts, administrative agencies, opposing counsel, and clients often is stressful. Developing coping tools and inner strength is vital. Learning a little about many areas of law—even those you won’t end up practicing in—will contribute to your general knowledge.
And your knowledge base will help you process new information because that new info will have existing mental structures to connect with. You’ll know terminology and develop a sense of when and where to refer future cases out. You’ll understand when you have to look things up. And you’ll have a foundation to begin the research you’ll do in practice.
You may even enjoy some parts of the exam, such as the multistate performance test. Many lawyers report that performance tests do have parallels to practice and help train skills you’ll use in legal work.
Keep your glass half full. Law school is a professional school; you’re working for a degree and lifetime license that will help you earn a living while helping others. Look at the hard work performed by most people who are good at what they do—in any field. If you’re working toward something that feels worthwhile, you can enjoy the process. Read more in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.
Much of our professional and life success, and our happiness along the way, is guided by our outlook. In bar prep and in life, we’ll make mistakes. We must fight so that challenges don’t become blocks. We must embrace the notion that hard work won’t stop us from going back in each day and fighting to improve.
We must see every misstep as an opportunity to improve. For example, as you study and get wrong answers on practice tests, know that’s not a predictor of doom but an opportunity to determine why you erred and make corrections for the next exams. Error-generating learning makes for lasting knowledge. With sufficient, fully engaged practice before your exam, you set yourself up for ultimate success.
The “practice” never ends.
As this pandemic has taught us, in our personal and professional lives, only one thing is certain: We’ll be thrown curve balls. And we’ll find fulfillment and be happier if we embrace our challenges as opportunities for improvement.
There’s a reason we call it the practice of law!