July is here. That means thousands of law school graduates across the country will end their two month cram session and take the bar exam at the end of the month. Now is the time when they realize that despite having survived law school, it all comes down to a measly two or three days of test taking. It is passing the bar, rather than simply graduating from law school, that will grant them entrance into the world of the lawyer. Studying for and taking the bar exam is also an humbling experience, because you realize (or should realize) that good grades in law school, being smart and working hard do not guarantee success on the exam.
Your mind plays tricks on you when studying for the bar exam. I found myself obsessing about random things at the most inopportune moments. Like the time I had a nervous break down, stayed up all night and searched my house from top to bottom because I thought I had forgotten to instruct the New York State Board of Bar Examiners to send my MBE (multi-state bar exam) scores to New Jersey. How will New Jersey grade my exam if they don’t know I took the multi-state section in New York? I asked myself. Will they even have a seat for me when I show up at the testing site in New Jersey? What about my scores from that professional responsibility exam I took a couple of years ago? Who gets those again? Such worries would have been great 2 or 3 months before the exam. Going crazy in the middle of the night, two weeks before the exam, was just useless self-torture. My mind was playing tricks on me!
I remember questioning my own intelligence and dreaming up theories to convince myself that I’d actually pass. I sometimes used the common sense approach to statistics and resorted to seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. If 74% of first-time test takers pass, then it’s more likely that I’ll be in that 74% rather than that 26% that fails, I often told myself. That actually made me feel better – somewhat. Hmmph, with my luck, I’d be part of that 26%, the evil part of my brain would chime in. When all else failed, I compared myself to the laziest person I knew and concluded that I was smarter and more studious. If Johnny passed the exam with his 1.5 GPA, never showed up to most of his classes, and slept through the classes he did attend, surely I can pass! That really made me feel better. When in doubt, just think of all the folks walking around with law licenses who make you wonder “Who did his parents bribe to get him into law school, and what cereal box did he pull his diploma out of?”
In addition to working hard and working smart, approaching the bar exam requires getting into a particular mental zone. An “I can do this and y’all betta hear me roar” zone. But, it’s hard to remain optimistic when folks keep spouting statistics at you. How much attention and credence you give these statistics will affect your mindset and your success. I remember the Assistant Dean of Students telling one of my Black classmates that she might as well drop out of law school because statistics showed that someone with her GPA was not likely to pass the bar exam. Instead, that classmate graduated from law school, passed the New York and New Jersey bar exams on the first try, and ended up working as an assistant district attorney and at a large firm all within three years of graduation. It’s all about being in the zone. Another statistic that often haunted me was the claim that minority students had a lower bar passage rate than other groups. Everyone obsessed about minorities. Studies were conducted and conferences assembled to assess what effects raising the MBE (multi-state bar exam) passage scores would have on minority students. All of this hoopla didn’t do much to allay my melanin-infused fears. As if minorities had a special gene that prohibited us from passing the bar exam. As if we possessed some neurological mechanism that prevented our neurons from firing properly or at all when trying to study. We were just doomed to fail. That’s it.
The most useful bar exam advice I ever received was from Professor Christopher Metzler. During my second year of law school, I attended a NBLSA (National Black Law Students Association) conference at the University of Connecticut School of Law. During Professor Metzler’s bar exam workshop, he recounted the same statistic that minority students had a lower bar passage rate than other groups. Well, that sure was uplifting. But, he offered a game plan. “You all should be studying for the bar exam the moment you enter law school in your first year. Throughout your academic career, you need to take classes whose subject matter will be on the bar exam.” He stressed the value of preparation and confidence. It was the first time I had given any serious thought to the bar exam. I usually couldn’t see any further into my future than my next reading assignment. Interestingly enough, the same Assistant Dean who told my Black classmate to drop out of school echoed Professor Metzler’s advice to students who didn’t have the best grades. I followed Professor Metzler’s advice and personally thanked him several years later when I ran into him at a work-related meeting.
Professor Metzler’s advice holds true for all law school graduates, irrespective of their backgrounds. When the time comes to study for and take the bar exam, you can’t change who you are. You can’t change your race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or grades. It is what it is. You can’t spend your time obsessing about statistics. You are not a statistic. What you can control is your attitude and your study habits. At some point, you’ve got to take a step back. You’ve got to shut people out of your world. Ignore the chatter around you. Ignore the naysayers – in your head and in the real world. And stay away from those statistics. As long as you have the ability to read, reason and write (which you must have, since you graduated from law school), you can do this. Put your game face on and just do it!!!! And remember, if Johnny passed the exam with his 1.5 GPA, never showed up to most of his classes, and slept through the classes he did attend, surely you can pass!