Lawyering v. Bar Exam, which is harder?

It’s true that the bar exam is technically a test of the law. But lawyering is more than demonstrating pure legal acumen. Clients need to believe in you. In my first weeks as a new lawyer in a local government entity, I was thrust into a crisis. Entering a packed room of angry constituents, it was my job to explain something very controversial, something that affected the residents’ property and quality of life in a very personal way.  A zoning permit applicant sought a permit for an adult video store on a highway right in front of a residential neighborhood. I was coming into my job as a town Solicitor from the pristine world of a federal clerkship where, as a clerk, I offered objective analyses of ideal legal outcomes. Naturally, I was wholly unprepared for the vitriol and backlash my legal counsel would provoke. My presentation included a lovely and somewhat scholarly discussion about the permit applicant’s First Amendment rights. No homeowner was impressed. In fact, an angry resident shouted at me, “I don’t care about the applicant’s First Amendment rights!”  At the time, I believed that legal doctrine would persuade the homeowner to see it my way. But in the tense moments of my first performance as a lawyer, I soon realized that a clinical approach to the law would not account for the complexities of the potential outcomes in a human situation. As a lawyer, I would learn this again and again in new contexts. Contracts disputes, for example, often require two lawyers to make the best compromise, and real-world negotiations are usually devoid of discussions concerning “offer, acceptance, and consideration.” Something greater than the law must prevail in law practice. 

In the town meeting, where I had my first experience as a lawyer, I had to draw on something other than the law --- my well of internal wisdom and my internal meter. So I took a deep breath, drew my shoulders back, and remembered that my most important legal function was to make people feel safe, to believe in my counsel, and to elicit trust. During those incredibly tense hours, I found something within myself that was entirely self-possessed. Somewhere I had a point of reference. I admit I might have thrown up after the meeting. But in the moments where the task demanded it, I showed up. I knew I had endured something more difficult before, certainly in law school, during those first weeks of Socratic hazing, and later in advocacy exercises, but also in whatever life experience I brought to my legal studies. You, too, have done something more difficult than this.

When I start the process of bar prep, I tell students that I will carry them to the test. “Just get in the car” I say, “I will drive.” But as the test nears, my role, and a student’s need, shifts, much like a parent’s role evolves from providing nurture and sustenance to ensuring that a child can eventually grow into functioning independently in the world as an adult. When the test is a few days away, my job is no longer to buffer difficulty and provide assurance, but rather to empower students to rely on themselves. This is also true for you. Your job now is to move from anxious subordinate, taking direction, to that of a self-possessed and able professional. You are now functioning as an equal. Once you take your test and pass, you will have achieved what every lawyer before you has had to do. For all practical purposes, whatever diverse and disparate circumstances brought you to the test, after you pass, you become level. 

It’s true, the week before the bar exam is a strange time. Students perceive the weight of the approaching exam as a physical threat and the body responds by doing what it does in times of crisis: it pumps adrenaline; increases respiration; it allows for hyper-vigilance. But in those few days before the test, the threat is not quite upon you; it’s only nearing, so the physiological response is premature, and as a result it creates a lot of discomfort. During the test, this physical response to danger is a super-power. If you have ever spoken to anyone after the test, they often describe it as a “blur.” That “blur” is the human defense mechanism in action. Still, all of this adrenaline, the emotional pitch of what is at stake, the mounting magnitude of the test, can make students spiral in the days before the test and lose the ability to center themselves and see the big picture. You are trying to be someone’s lawyer after all. In the last several days before the test, you must require something greater of yourself and begin to transition into the role you are seeking to fill. 

This is not your last test. In many ways it is your first. Lawyering is much harder than bar exam.