When I was studying for the bar exam, I went to one lecture during my bar prep that really freaked me out. After that lecture, I was sure I was going to fail. I knew the person giving the lecture and I told him after his lecture—that based on his talk, I was definitely going to fail the exam. He said to me that he was sure I would pass the exam and that his lecture wasn’t meant to scare me—that instead it was meant to scare the people in the room who weren’t studying or taking the bar exam seriously.
That made me think: Really, were there people in the room who weren’t taking the bar seriously? And even so, is scaring them to death the way to deal with this?
Who Has Created This Culture of Fear?
Have you ever talked about the bar exam with people who don’t know that many lawyers? You say that it is this big two- or three-day test and that you study for it for months. Usually, they say something along the lines of “man, that sucks” and then they start talking about something else. The law student/bar studier/new lawyer is likely to say, “No, you don’t understand. It is a horrible experience,” explaining just how awful the bar exam really is. Those who don’t know many law students/bar studiers/new lawyers may think you are crazy and say, “It is just a test, right?”
Since starting to work with bar studiers, I have spent a lot of time thinking about where this “culture of fear” comes from. Whose fault is it? Sure, the bar exam is really hard. Yes, studying for months is no fun. Yes, in some states half of the test-takers fail. But I have talked to doctors about sitting for their licensing exams and they never talk about their exams the way we talk about the bar exam. In fact, among all of my friends in a multitude of professions (many requiring licensing exams) no one talks about the exam experience as we talk about the bar exam.
Which means that our profession, our law schools, and the bar review community have created this culture of fear around this test.
Does the Culture of Fear Really Help Anyone?
I talk to a lot of people all over the country who have failed bar exams. Sometimes, people fail because they didn’t study enough, this is true. But often, people fail because they are paralyzed by the fear surrounding this exam. Some folks fail because they are so strung out during the study period that they can’t effectively prepare. Some, in extreme cases, walk out of the exam because they are so sure they are going to fail.
Let’s go back to the story I told earlier about my bar prep experience. I know the lecturer had to make a choice, either to lecture to create fear in those who weren’t studying or just to lecture about the test. I have to wonder—did the fear mongering actually work? Did it encourage anyone to study more? I would guess that it didn’t. I would guess that, instead, it actually caused anxiety in the students who were studying. I would guess it made them less productive and more worried and distracted.
When I left the above-mentioned bar exam lecture, did I head to the library for a productive afternoon? Was I extra-productive because I was reminded how scary the bar exam was?
Nope. I actually spent about 30 minutes in the parking garage talking to one of my best friends, trying to cope with how stressed we both were. Then I called my mother for a pep talk (she is also a lawyer); that took another hour. Then I went home after a few rather useless hours in the library and unloaded on my boyfriend. I likely spent hours that day melting down about the exam instead of just studying for it.
Now, I am not saying that the bar exam isn’t a stressful experience. But at some point, our profession has lost perspective and has forgotten that it is just a test. Sure, it may be the hardest test you may ever take, but it is still just a test. And the fear instilled in all of us really doesn’t come from the test itself, but from folks who think it is the best motivator for people to study and take it seriously.
You know what? I don’t agree. I don’t think one needs to be motivated by fear. I would rather we talk about the bar like any other test, not like a life-altering experience. I bet folks would be less stressed. In many cases, some folks may actually be more successful on exam day. Because they will spend their energy studying for the exam—and not waste time being afraid of failure. They will put their energy in a productive place instead of spending countless hours worrying and being stressed out.
Whether you are taking the bar exam for the first time or coming back from a failure, I encourage you to sit with the idea that this exam is not something to be afraid of. It is just a big old law school exam. Don’t buy into the culture of fear. Yes, you need to be serious about it. Yes, you need to study hard. Yes, you want to pass. But when it all is over, it is just an exam. This outlook will likely make for a better, perhaps easier (and more successful) experience.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Bar Study Tips: Stop Saying “I Can’t”
- Getting Mentally Ready for the Bar Exam
- Four Steps to Conquering Self-Doubt During Bar Exam Study
- Why Your Mindset Matters When It Comes to the Bar Exam