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Studying for the Bar Exam? A Few Tips.

Updated on August 6, 2012

Think of the Bar Exam as a Challenge, Not An Obstacle

If you're studying for the bar exam and you're not nervous, consider a career in litigation. You are one tough customer. Studying for the bar exam is not just an intellectual exercise but an emotional and physical, yes physical, one as well. Many years ago, when I studied for the New York State Bar Exam, I had a knot in my stomach that didn't go away until I finished the test. It was then replaced by another knot as I waited the envelope - Yes, that envelope. I went to law school in Chicago, so I had to cram New York law into my head with a vengeance. As the exam approached I had so much law in my noggin that it would squirt out of my ears if I sat down abruptly.

I'm happy to say that I passed the first time around. Well, happiness doesn't quite describe the feeling. It was more like elation. I could get on with my career, and perhaps just as important, I didn't have to go through the arduous cramming process again. Studying for the bar was such a challenging experience for me that I can still recall those months of effort even though it has been decades since I went through it. I was inspired to write this article after a recent conversation with a very nervous young woman who is taking the bar next month. I hope these tips will be helpful. If you happen to be reading this article just out of curiosity and you're not studying for the bar, please pass it along to an aspiring lawyer who is.

Your Attitude

Attitude is number one on the list because everything else flows from it. Here are some things to consider:

  • You can and will pass. This is not just a piece of positive thinking, although positivity beats the hell out of negativity. No, it's simply an expression of the truth. Make it your truth. You successfully made it through law school, which means that you have taken a lot of exams. You can pass the bar as well. And just think: you don't need an A; you just need to pass.
  • Fear. It's combination of thought and emotion that can cloud your judgment, not to mention interfere with your studying. Consider this: fear is not a thing, it's a thought. That's right, it's just a thought and it's hooked to an emotion. Try this simple mental exercise to address your fearful thoughts when they show up. Yes, address them as you would an unpleasant person. Speak (mentally, or even better, out loud if you're alone). Why not say : "Hi fear. I just saw you crawl into my head. I hate to be disrespectful, but you're just a thought, and not one that I intended to have. So I'll simply ask you to leave. You may be back, but please don't expect a welcome." Don't fight it; just ask it to leave.
  • Doubt. You should have studied more for that course on commercial paper. You can recite the rule against perpetuities but you're not sure you understand it. Maybe you should have signed up for a different bar review course. All of this stuff will go through your head. Don't be concerned. Just like fear, doubts are thoughts. Just politely ask them to leave.
  • You don't have enough time to study. Of course you do. If you're employed and have to study at night, manage your time and you will control your study.
  • If I don't pass the first time I will be disgraced. Two things here; first, you will pass. Drill that into your brain. Secondly, many a brilliant person didn't make it on the first go-around. Nobody thinks of the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. as a dummy. On the contrary, he was a very bright guy. But it took him three tries to pass the bar. I mention that in passing, because you are going to pass the first time.

Some Specific Things You Should Do—and Avoid

  • Get exercise. Exercise calms you down, enhances sleep and makes your brain work better. At a minimum, you should walk for a half-hour every day. It provides oxygen for your brain and it will help you retain more of what you study. When I studied for the bar I was overwhelmed by fatigue caused by lack of sleep. I went to the doctor who gave me some simple advice. Get exercise.
  • If you smoke, now is not the time to give it up. You have enough on your plate. but consider cutting down. Heavy smoking will make you feel terrible and will do nothing for your studying.. Maybe reward yourself with a smoke every 2 hours.
  • Watch comedies if you take an occasional TV break,. Nothing helps the psyche better than a good laugh.
  • One month prior to the exam do not speak to anyone else who is preparing for it. This is a mental issue: you will think the others are better prepared than you (which is unlikely); it will toy with your attitude and take you off focus. You have enough worries about the bar exam; don’t look for more.
  • Follow familiar habits. If you have a favorite place to study and read, don't change it just because you think the bar exam requires a break from the old.
  • Listen to baroque music. There is a lot of evidence that music of the baroque era (about 1600 to 1750) calms you and helps you to focus mentally. So pop on some Bach, Handel or Vivaldi and boogie.
  • Listen to the tips from the folks conducting your bar review course. They know what they're doing, and the success of their business depends on keeping students satisfied. They try to psych out what questions will appear based on the major legal issues of the day.
  • During the bar exam, when you break for lunch you will probably dine with some fellow exam takers. DO NOT, under any circumstances, discuss the exam. Invariably somebody will say "On that question about the holder in due course rule, the answer was b, wasn't it." You were sure the answer was "d." Now your head is messed up. Instead, talk about sports, Lady Gaga, Saturday Night Live, anything but the law. Also avoid politics or anything that may stir up turmoil while you lunch. And watch the carbohydrates. Carbs can make you drowsy.

Enjoy the exam! I'm not kidding. If you prepare mentally, emotionally and physically you will take it as a challenge, not an obstacle.

Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran All rights reserved

The writer of this article, an attorney, is the author of Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails. Coddington Press 2011. See more information below.


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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Once is enough!

    • sonnyhodgin profile image

      Sonny Hodgin 5 years ago from Indiana

      Really good advice. The bar exam is not something most people want to do twice!

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Simone. This is why lawyers charge so much

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Hahaa, your tip about baroque music cracked me up! I've heard the same thing about its effectiveness with helping out in the test-taking department, though. Great tips on passing the Bar Exam. I've heard horrid things about it, so if I were to take it, I'd want to do everything possible to increase my chances of passing!