Remember in your first year of law school when they told you that they were going to teach you to think like a lawyer?
And maybe you were wondering what that meant exactly. Now, years later, after conquering everything from the interstate commerce clause to the rule against perpetuities, you are ready to sit for the California bar exam. And, most importantly, you can think like a lawyer, and on your feet, the true measure of your hard work.
Now you have the perfect, and very lawyerly, plan and you’ve studied everything, aced the MBE practice exams and re-written every essay to perfection. You have a clear strategy and are solid on all your checklists. You’ve exercised and meditated. You love your plan, and you are ready to pass this exam.
Studying hard and building an attack plan is a great strategy, but be ready to let go of concrete plans. Maybe everything will be smooth sailing for you, and you will stick to your plan and pass this exam without a hitch. But maybe you will be one of many who experiences an unexpected disruption, like a terrible head cold, a family emergency or even an unexpected subject on your exam. Your perfect plan may no longer be a perfect fit.
So here is where you need to trust yourself, all that hard work didn’t result in a good plan, it resulted in a good you.
Accept the situation as it is, not as you want it to be. If you need to let go of all or part of your plan, you can. Modify what you can and make changes that contribute to your success on this exam. A head cold might mean skipping your planned morning run or turning it into a walk. A family situation might be distracting you; reset your personal boundaries. Don’t let an unexpected essay subject shake your confidence or your resolve.
If the exam throws you an unexpected subject or life picks this week to share a cold with you, bend, don’t break. I can’t count the number of stories I have heard about people leaving the bar exam in tears or turning in blank or almost blank books. As a grader, I’ve seen those books, and as an applicant, I almost broke. On the morning session of day one of the exam, I opened my packet to find a Wills essay staring me in the face, yet every prediction had said that Wills wouldn’t be on this exam. Since it was a subject that I hated, I had barely studied it, banking on it not being tested. And the sight of this question threw me into a momentary panic and destroyed my perfect plan. I decided to bend instead of breaking. Thinking on my feet, I harnessed the energy triggered by this unhappy encounter, reworked my plan by allocating my writing time differently and ended up passing the exam.
Don’t mourn the disruption of your plan, embrace the challenge that has presented itself, knowing that you are the most important part of your plan. This is where you get to think like a lawyer, you just spent a lot of time and money learning this skill-set, now is the time to use it. You don’t suddenly start being a lawyer when you get your passing exam results, you start now, and this exam is your opportunity to demonstrate that you are ready to be a lawyer.
If you feel like letting go of your plan will just add more stress to an already full plate, then make stress your friend.
Manage That Stress
Acknowledge the stress is there and be realistic about what is causing it. Channel that stress into positive energy and use it to your advantage. Consider the possibility that stress could actually help you. Studies investigating individual response to stress prove that changing your mindset about stress can change your physical response to stress.
For those struggling to manage anxiety and your individual stress response, watching Psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk on stress might be a worthwhile study break.
Stress is part of this exam and this profession; you signed up for this and paid lots of money to subject yourself to this exam. If you haven’t already, you might as well start developing your strategies for handling stress. This is a great place to start, as the bar exam is intense and triggers a stress response in most people, and you have the choice of whether to suffer through this process or conquer the experience.
Master the situation by deciding in advance that you can handle whatever is thrown your way. So befriend your stress now, be ready to be flexible and stay focused in the exam. Bring your plan with you and be prepared to do well even if it gets knocked out of play. Remember that you already think like a lawyer, now is your chance to show off your skills.