I’ve talked before about developing a study schedule, and how much I love designing custom study schedules for our bar takers. As much as I love the challenge of tailoring bar study for an unconventional bar taker, however, I frequently find myself worrying about whether they will actually have the time they expect. I worry more often that even the time they expect isn’t quite enough. What is “enough”? Well, as with everything else in the legal field, it depends. I can’t give any absolutes, but I can give you things to think about. It’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but we’ll talk about scheduling time in a busy week, using (or taking) holidays and vacation time, and what to do close to the exam. I’ll also touch a little on what to do if you can’t follow these recommendations.
Scheduling Time in a Busy Week
People are busy. But if you want to pass the bar exam, you need to make it a priority. The problem is that bar study isn’t any fun! And it always feels like there’s more time to study, so it’s easy to push it off. Something I’ve started suggesting is that people actually calendar “appointments” with themselves to study throughout the week. These appointments might look different week to week, but scheduling them in advance might help you keep enough time clear.
And we’re back to enough. Well, obviously, it depends on how long you’re studying, but you want to try to have a minimum of 400 hours of bar study (more if you have accommodations that include extended time or if you lack background in US law, less if you’re taking a reduced “attorney” exam). If you’re studying for 8-10 weeks, I really recommend studying full-time (40+ hours per week), or as close to it as you can get. If you’re studying for 16+ weeks, you can make 25 hours per week work. That said, you want to arrange blocks of time, not just snatched minutes here and there. I generally recommend planning for, at minimum, multiple two-hour blocks throughout the week. These are long enough for doing practice assignments or to do a decent amount of substantive review. I also recommend at least one or two longer blocks (8-10 hours) per week. Obviously, these long blocks can be broken into shorter sessions, but I find that most bar studiers benefit from planning a full day to really focus on their bar studies. Even more importantly, these longer blocks allow for full practice tests, which are crucial to bar success.
Holidays and Vacations
Holidays and vacations are incredibly important factors in bar study, and I think people overlook them frequently in their plans. When I ask about them, I get two main types of answer. Either “I have all these holidays and all of this vacation time so I’m going to devote it all to bar study” or “I have all of these holidays and all of this vacation time, and I’m not going to waste it being miserable.” As usual, a happy medium is called for here, and it works best if you plan ahead.
If you’re in the “lots of study time” camp, map out all of your vacation time in your calendar, and see how it fits with your bar study plans. Then think really hard about whether you’ll actually be able to study during your favorite winter holiday or while your friends are having a summer barbecue. Consider making some of those key dates into “flex days” where you can study if you’re behind or have reasonable anxiety about a particular subject, but you can also take the day off if you need a break.
If you’re in the “I don’t want to skip my fun time” camp, do the same thing, but in reverse. Block all of those times out of your calendar and see what happens to your studies. Will you get more than a few hours with each subject? Which holidays/vacations are immovable, and which can be scaled back or delayed? Once you have the ratio of study time to vacation time that makes sense for your needs, consider making that vacation time into incentives. It’s obviously very important to you (and it should be!), but you also obviously want to pass the bar enough to be going through this whole process. So, you only get to go on that trip with your friend if you’re all caught up on your studies when it’s time to leave. Holding yourself to that type of restriction might really help you stay focused during the time when you actually intend to study.
Close to the Bar Exam
I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but I always love it when bar takers are able to take one or two weeks off of work and focus on full-time studies immediately before the bar exam. It’s a great time to do a final practice test and a final review of each subject (including practice time, of course!). Having that wrap-up time seems to really help people get in the mindset for the bar exam, and do any final clean-up of their understanding and strategy. For some people, especially parents, this might also involve getting a hotel room or staying with an understanding (and quiet!) friend/family member for some period of time so that you are getting rid of any additional distractions. (Kids are delightful, but they are also very distracting!) Consider how and where you work best, and make an effort to have as much time as possible in that type of environment in the days leading up to the bar exam.
This Is All Great, But Totally Unrealistic
If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re not alone! Sometimes it really just isn’t realistic to devote large blocks of time during the week, to skip out on holidays/vacations, or to take time off work to study. And that’s where it becomes a judgment call that only you can make, possibly with the assistance of an impartial observer. Should you take the bar exam on a different date, and devote yourself to a slow build-up? Do you have the skill and knowledge to make your available time sufficient? (If you go this route, I encourage you to seek an outside opinion!) Is a change in your work schedule feasible right now? Is the bar exam actually necessary for your career at this point?
Lots of attorneys live by a calendar. They have to meet clients, judges, opposing counsel, bosses, and co-counsel. Keeping a defined schedule is the only way to make it all work. If bar admission is your goal, start that calendar sooner rather than later, and make sure your study time is on it!