Taking the bar? Ask yourself why

As thousands of law students are poised to descend into the tunnel that is bar exam preparation, I am beginning my work, affectionately known to those in my immediate circle as “bar season.” We are in this together, my students and me. It’s a sobering endeavor for both of us. To the graduating classes of new lawyers in training, I want to offer some perspective about purpose.

It did not occur to me until very deep into my first year of law school that some of my classmates did not want to be there. I don't say this in the dismissive sense. I mean they openly admitted they truly did not have any desire to be in law school. Coming from where I did, against some serious adversity, I saw the opportunity to go to law school through the lens of my own yearning. Didn't everyone there want it so bad it hurt?

When I was applying to law school, inspired to overcome the lifelong obstacles placed in my path, I wrote my law school admission essay about the parallels between my pursuit of a formal education and a solid gray concrete building I used to pass on my way to school while earning my undergraduate degree. College was for me an imperative in a life with very few resources and very little in the way of prospects. One day, passing the building on my usual route to school, I noticed that someone painted windows on its previously windowless exterior. The windows were beautiful arched blazons of blue aqua. When I first saw the windows I felt awe, and a degree of recognition.

I passed that building for seven years, propelled by it from college through law school. That building, though outwardly dispirited and windowless, became an emblem for me. I came to see its facade as my personal testament to endurance and desire. It spoke to me about the will of a lone ghetto artist and his need to paint on hope, to create openings where none had previously existed. It stood for the idea that nothing was bound by its beginnings, no matter how outwardly limited. That was how I saw my life. That was how I saw my reason for going to law school. I was painting on hope.

Naturally, then, the idea that some students did not elect their pursuit of a law degree, not, at least from some personal independent passion, was jarring to me. I was fascinated by the very idea of the luxury of the option, let alone the wavering will. By the second year of law school, the rumblings of the disgruntled law student masses intensified, made up of students whose parents’ professional lives informed their childrens’ paths or families with legal lineage going back decades. And then there were the lost, whose legal education provided just one more respite before "real life" called. For these students, law school delayed the inevitable, whether that meant taking on the challenge of disappointing a parent or taking on the challenge of figuring out what to do after any kind of school. It also created a yoke because the inevitable was looming. At some point, if everything went right, the legal education would produce a license, and that license would produce a legal career.

Through my work preparing students for the bar exam, I have learned to judge this predicament differently. After all, everyone's struggle is real. There is no qualitative difference between yearning for entry into an otherwise elusive "club" or pining for liberation from its confines. Everyone's oppressor is real to them. What the struggle means to bar exam preparation is that anyone wrestling with why they are taking the exam will suffer in a way greater than the population of bar takers who want the end result. In that sense, the self-compelled student is the more privileged.

If I could spare a student from unnecessary pain at the threshold of the exam, I would ask them: "Why are you taking the bar exam?" If they cannot conjure any authentic response, I encourage them to reconsider, maybe not forever, but until there's some clarity about the impetus.

If I could offer some insight from both my years as a hopeful student and now as a trusted bar coach, it would be this: Your parents were wrong if they told you that someday, despite your angst and opposition, you would be happy you endured law school and then took the bar exam.

There's nothing inherently "better" about being a lawyer if being a lawyer is not what you want. And if being a lawyer is not want you want, the bar exam presents a battle better left unwaged. It's tough on the psyche of the most committed student, and success at the end of the endeavor brings a license to practice law. Worse, and I see this a lot, not succeeding at the exam because of internal conflict can be soul wounding and life altering. Students can get stuck in an idea of failure that becomes a lifelong monument to the pain.

But here's the good news, if your purpose in this pursuit is clear, articulating it for yourself at the outset of your preparation, and referencing it through the rigors of the process can inspire the motivation to slog through. Trust me, there will be some slogging when a focal point of determination will help, if just for that day. But the bar exam is often an experience made up of days that can be gotten through in moments. Sometimes it only takes a mantra, a personal refrain, or simple delayed gratification. Students need to prepare the positive focal return points in the same way they do the legal tests, and in many ways more so because the exam work can be managed mechanically, but the emotional impact is not so predictable.

I don't intend to suggest that the desire for a license should be so compelling that you set it atop your height as a human. That's an altogether different mistake and that discussion is for another day. Nor does the desire even have to be so deep that a dank gray building in the ghetto becomes an enduring symbol of its purpose. It just needs to be defined, and more than that, it needs to be yours.


Deborah Sanders is owner of Bar-None Prep and is based in New Jersey. She is writing a book on "The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar" and her writings can be read at www.barexammaster.com