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Success depends on your ability to focus, and your financial burdens can invade when you haven’t planned for them.
Success depends on your ability to focus, and your financial burdens can invade when you haven’t planned for them.

Most bar prep advice stresses review of the law and taking practice tests. These are incredibly important parts of the process and integral components of the post-graduation intensive study required to pass.

I, too, have written about motivating to study and how to study smart. And bar review and practice exams are certainly key building blocks. But there is more.

In my bar success books and articles, I often begin with what I call finding your why. Many don’t acknowledge that piece, but research confirms that finding purpose and meaning in the process makes most challenges easier. That includes bar exam preparation, especially on discouraging days—of which there are many. Everyone who’s all-in struggles; it’s perfectly normal.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about two other interrelated success components: focus and finances.

Both are essential, and they’re integrally connected to one another. Without a solid financial footing (for what is a far costlier venture than many realize), it’s nearly impossible to engage in the sort of in-depth focus needed for law school, bar exam, and your professional success.

A focus on focusing

Is paying close attention to words and ideas a lost art in our world of splintered attention? Notifications and messages fly into our in-boxes, constantly interrupting our flow. It’s tough to block out disruptions and focus on any one thing. It’s particularly difficult during bar review since nearly all study content is housed on the very same machines that steal our attention: laptops, phones, and tablets.

It was different when the TV (or whatever other antiquated machine took our focus) was in one room and bar review books were in another. Books don’t DM. They don’t contain endless rabbit holes that lead to online shopping, YouTube videos, social media, and other temptations.

Studies show that if your phone is near you, even face down, your thoughts will be diverted to what’s coming in on that device. Today, news stories run tickers with blurbs about every hot story. Watch virtually anything on a screen and pop-ups will flash, prompting additional content to interest you.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to be in any one moment without advertisers pushing what’s next. They know how easily our attentions are shifted; they bank on it. And, for some reason, we’ve let our complex world tell us, and we’ve come to expect of ourselves, that we’re capable of watching and listening intently while reading and thinking. We can’t.

A splintered focus may be sufficient to grasp the gist of a funny pet video but not to learn legal doctrine. It’s not possible to fully embrace the kind of deep learning necessary to become an excellent lawyer with fragmented input and no time to think and digest.

When was the last time you read anything until it made sense without something else stealing your attention? I’m not talking about getting through the words, highlighting here and there. I’m talking about fully engaging with the words and the ideas they convey. I’m talking about closing the screen after reading passages to give yourself the time to make mental connections, to understand how rules fit together, why there are exceptions, and possibly even to indulge in thinking about how the law might or should evolve.

Legal learning requires close, detailed reading and reflection. Be honest: Do you read the notes and questions before and after cases in your casebooks? Do you ask yourself:

  • What actually happened to the parties?
  • Why did the court focus where it did?
  • What did the court decide?
  • Is the decision a new rule or an extension of or an exception to an existing rule?
  • Does the rule apply in other contexts? Always?
  • Why does any of it matter?
  • Why did the author select this part of this case, and how does it connect to other pieces of this course?

It’s not that everything takes hours to understand. It’s that you’ll attain the requisite deeper level of focus when you let yourself dive into material without 12 simultaneous diversions invading your brain space. And make no mistake, the multitude of distractors that sabotage our ability to focus are invaders.

Money is a distraction

One of the most powerful invaders, something that legitimately and deeply detracts from law study and bar prep, is financial worry. Recent empirical studies, including AccessLex and NYBOLE’s Analyzing First-Time Bar Passage on the UBE in New York State, show that financial worries are a significant factor in bar failure. National and school-specific data also reveal high stress levels relating to finances.

When students graduate with as much debt as they often do, little helps to tamp down the ominous worry clouds, the “How will I ever repay all of this?” Such long-term fears are compounded by an immediate post-graduation challenge: how to finance eight weeks without work or student loans.

Why are graduates in this position? One reason is that many don’t realize until it’s too late that they’ll need to finance months of post-graduation bar study. Others think they can effectively keep part-time jobs and complete bar prep.

But the AccessLex/NYBOLE study found that working during bar review poses a key obstacle to passage. It makes sense that when working bar takers are in the same grading pools as nonworking applicants, the latter group has an obvious edge. And those who aren’t working but are without sufficient funds and are worrying about how they’ll eat or pay rent aren’t just slightly disadvantaged; it’s nearly impossible to focus when you’re in survival mode.

How much does bar prep cost? Well, the cost of living for at least two months varies significantly by region. In some places, $2,000–$3,000 per month will suffice; in other locations, it’s much more.

Then there are bar review courses that can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars for reputable, full-service courses. Next there are costs to take a bar exam, including jurisdiction exam fees, special “laptop fees,” travel to and from test sites, and lodging and food at exam locations.

These costs vary by jurisdiction. They start in the low hundreds, such as in Washington, D.C. (as of this writing, for first-time takers it’s $205 with a laptop fee of $145), and New York (first-time takers pay $250, with a laptop fee of $100). They escalate into the thousands, such as Florida (first-time takers pay $1,000, with a laptop fee of $145) and South Carolina (first-time takers pay $1,000 along with a laptop fee of $125.50).

Check your jurisdiction’s website to be sure you know the costs. And apply on time. If you miss deadlines, there are late fees on top of the regular fees.

Wait! There’s more.

Beyond the bar exam, other components are required for licensing, including character and fitness, the MPRE, and, in some jurisdictions, state-specific exams. All have additional costs. Adding it up, plan on about $10,000 for bar-related costs—and that’s excluding private tutoring, if needed. (Talk with your academic success program faculty before hiring a tutor.)

Solutions? Save enough to finance at least two months without working after graduation. Tap into budgeting websites and free resources for law students in financial literacy programs, such as MAX by AccessLex.

Think about daily savings. Make your own coffee instead of hitting the coffee shop. Take public transportation, and share living spaces with roommates. Make regular appointments with counselors in your financial aid office to discuss the loans you take, and put some money aside each semester for post-graduation bar prep. If you have a safe, reliable network you can ask for financial help or advice, do so.

Circling back to where we began, if your finances are under control, you can work on training your general ability to focus. Focus, like mindset, isn’t fixed. We can increase our ability to think deeply and critically. Practice every day. All of the following can help:

  • Meditation
  • Finding quiet places to study
  • Leaving your phone in another room while you study
  • Disabling notifications and instant messaging
  • Setting email and social media “office hours” so you check only when you need a study break anyway
  • Pushing back invaders that pop into the inbox of your mind
  • Starting with small blocks of full focus and increasing the time gradually, building up to three-hour blocks that mirror what will be required for bar success.

This isn’t easy. Magic bullets won’t appear. The study and practice of law are hard and require deep focus—something that’s not trendy or what we’re used to in our fragmented world. But it’s doable.

Ultimately, you must control your bar prep. Don’t let it control you. Start concentration training, and start saving money—now. This is an investment in you and in your future, and it will pay off.