The Almost Daily Word – Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Exam Preparation – #4 – Obsessiveness

Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back to the same question and never get an answer. Norman Mailer – American writer.

Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 4 is:

Being Obsessive

Let’s define our terms. “Devotion” is “the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal.” Being “obsessive is “[being] excessive, often to an unreasonable degree.” One way of thinking about whether you’re devoted to, or obsessive about, your exam preparation may be in terms of what you’re doing and what you’re not doing.

In my opinion, you’re devoted if you are doing these things:

1. Developing a general plan for your summer study before or promptly once your bar course begins. Start with a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s best to do it yourself – you know yourself better than anyone. Relying on someone else (a trusted professor, a close law school classmate) is the best of second best, but only if you agree with the result.

Setting your priorities: realistic time allocations for prep course attendance, group study (if that’s your thing), individual study, practice exams, tutorial time – everything you can think of. The whole thing is like a financial budget – only the finite resource is time.

This plan must take into account that you have a life outside of studying. (You’ll see what I mean if you keep reading.)

2. Preparing a realistic day-by-day schedule. Some prep courses are very schedule-heavy. A good thing if you want this type of thinking done for you, but only if it will work. Your priorities (see step 1) may dictate otherwise. Will the time allotted to each bar course you are seeing for the first time suffice? If not, you may have to tweak your schedule, “on the fly,” and “as the clock runs down.” Start thinking about it – the earlier, the better.

3. Sticking to the realistic schedule you’ve set for yourself throughout your studying. And, changing the plan only for good reasons which you’ve considered carefully.

In my opinion, you’re obsessive if, because you’re studying so much, you’re not also doing these things:

a. Exercising. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, improving alertness, attention span and mental acuity. It helps curb feelings of anxiety. And it makes you less prone to catching a cold or the flu – two things that will throw your studying way out of line.

b. Eating right. A 2012 study in the journal Population Health Management links unhealthy eating with a 66 percent increased loss of productivity among workers in three large American companies. Eating right is not rocket science. In a nutshell, it means less salt (sorry pizza!) less fat (sorry again!), and less sugar; and more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. It also means proper hydration and moderate consumption of caffeine and alcohol.

c. Getting enough rest. A study in the Journal of Vision from Brigham and Young Women’s Hospital shows that the more sleep deprived a person is, the worse his or her work becomes. “The longer a person is awake, the more the ability to perform a task … is hindered, and this impact of being awake is even stronger at night,” says Jeanne Duffy, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s.

d. Hugging (and being hugged). Hugging, cuddling and kissing (feel free to go on from there) a loved one all raise the amount of oxytocin in your blood. Oxytocin helps to decrease anxiety and blood pressure, and even boost memory.

The bottom line is study effectiveness – right? Scheduling realistically in and actually doing the right things in addition to studying will improve your bar performance. It will improve your overall health and state of mind. And, since you’re going to be healthier, happier, and more alert, it may provide more quality time for you to knock down the rule against perpetuities – without getting obsessed about it.

The Almost Daily Word – Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Exam Preparation – #5 -Pride

A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. C.S. Lewis – Author

Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 5 is:


Pride can be something to be pleased about or to disapprove of depending on how you define it. For example, a “reasonable or justifiable self-respect” is essential to a healthy and fulfilling life.

I’m talking about “inordinate self esteem.” “Inordinate” as in “I’m in the top quartile of my class.” I’m too smart to fail the exam,” or “…to have failed the exam,” or, in some instances “… “to have failed the exam multiple times” …. “Something must be wrong.” Inordinate as in “I can’t find time to study because I’m too involved with my ___ .” (You fill in the blank … but “start-up,” “clinic,” “volunteer work” and – believe it or not, “[full time] work” – are all ones I’ve heard).

This type of pride hides from the prideful the realities of preparing to pass, on the first (or the next) attempt, an 18-hour examination (longer for some applicants) on 13 legal doctrinal subjects and additional practical skills. It may also hide from them the consequences of failing the bar exam the first time, or of never passing it. You may not want to think about it, but those consequences can be dreadful.

In Marooned: An Empirical Investigation of Law School Graduates Who Fail the Bar Exam (Journal of Legal Education, Volume 60, Number 1 (August 2010)) Jane Yakowitz, then on the faculty of the UCLA School of Law, considered the consequences of bar failure. In a complex and thoughtful article, she summarized her findings this way:

Law school graduates who never pass a bar exam have a very difficult “first term.” Five to ten years out of law school, they lag behind lawyers on every measure – earnings, employment stability, even marriage and divorce rates. Moreover, as a group, they fare worse than college graduates, despite their better-than-average undergraduate grades. [Although] … they spring back and out-perform the average college graduate in the latter half of their careers, … they never catch up with their lawyer peers … the earnings of the median individual do catch up with the 25th percentile lawyer …

Ms. Yakowitz’s recounting of the emotional tolls of failing the exam are consistent with my own anecdotal observations, made across numerous tables – in my office, libraries, coffee shops, borrowed classrooms – all the locations where I meet with and tutor bar exam repeaters.

Interviewees … provided descriptions of their careers that are so uniform they sound like a single response fed through a thesaurus. “Unemployed,” limited,” “my life is on hold,” “stuck in a rut,” “stuck,” “career purgatory,” “it’s just killing me” … The emotional response to bar failure was so strong and homogenous across the interview pool. … At least in the short term, bar failure seems to be the nightmare come true.”

Are you hiding behind excessive pride, jeopardizing your chances at first-time (or next-time) bar success? When is pride excessive? Try rating how you respond to each of these situations on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “not at all” and 10 representing “all the time.” It may be difficult, but be as honest and accurate as you can.

1. What I want is all that matters. When we make decisions together, what you want, your concerns, your feelings.. these are mere whispers, inconveniences and irrelevancies. When we discuss issues, my opinions are right. Yours are wrong or else of minimal importance. If you expect to have input, you are undermining me.
2. I know more, I know better, I’m more interesting, When we talk, it’s mostly about me. In conversations, I take up most of the air time. Maybe that’s why people say I suck up all the air in a room. When I want something, I need to have it. Never mind how you feel about it; it’s all about me. I’m big and important and you are merely also here, mostly to do things for me, like a third arm.
3. I can …, cut into a line where others are waiting, cheat on my taxes, and ignore rules that get in the way of my doing what I want.. Rules are for other people to follow.
4. If you insist on my listening and taking your concerns seriously I’m likely to get mad. Criticism hurts. I can criticize others, and often do, but if you criticize me you’re hurting my feelings so I’ll hurt you back.
5. I can’t be expected to apologize or to admit blame. I’m above others and above reproach. You shouldn’t have… . Don’t threaten me with expecting me to say how I’ve contributed to a problem or I’ll get mad at you.
6. You made me mad. You didn’t listen to me. You criticized me. You’re trying to control me. Your view is wrong. So you need to apologize, not me.
7. It’s never my fault if things didn’t go well. I’m not responsible for the problem. Someone else is. I’m not responsible either for my anger. If I’m mad that’s your fault.
A bit of all of these traits just comes with being human. However, if your score is 30 or higher, it’s time to make some habit changes or even to commit yourself to some serious personal growth before you take the Bar Exam.


With thanks to “Are You a Narcissist – 6 Sure Signs of Narcissism” by Susan Heitler, PhD (Published in Psychology Today on October 25, 2012)

The Almost Daily Word – Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Exam Preparation – # 6 – Avoidance

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. Saul Bellow – Nobel Prize Winning American Author

Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 6 is:

Being Avoidant

I am no stranger to avoidance. When I was still practicing in a law firm, I once let conflict of interest waiver letters to two clients – letters I had already signed – sit on my desk, unmailed, for three weeks. For all that time, I did work for both clients. Each day when I arrived at work, the letters would be the first things I saw. All I had to do was mail them – even those increasingly older dates at the top probably wouldn’t have mattered. But I didn’t, and didn’t and didn’t, until finally, I did. Fortunately, there was no harm. The conflict was only “potential,” the need to do anything else never arose, and the only blip on anyone’s radar was on my own. However, things could easily have gone very very differently, with consequences to everyone that would not have been good, or easy to justify.

All these years later, my behavior in this and several other similar instances remains largely inexplicable to me. Did I not take things seriously enough? Was there some unconscious explanation? You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was invested in ignorance. I behaved stupidly and I could have paid the price.

As a bar exam tutor and law school faculty member, I see law students’ avoidant behaviors all the time. They tell me that they are unable to study because it makes them “too nervous.” They put off submitting information to the State Bar that they need to turn in to become lawyers. They don’t show up for class or for private tutoring, don’t turn in assignments on time, break counseling appointments. I’m not talking about real conflicts with other obligations, or legitimate emergencies. What I’m talking about is not doing something for no good or even articulable reason.

The great tragedy is that the avoidant bar exam repeaters that I’ve worked with have not only avoided studying, they have also avoided passing. And the great irony is that, absent a miracle, until they change, they will be unable to avoid taking the exam over and over again. When I pick up an avoidant “vibe” from a first-time taker, it makes me very concerned.

In an interesting article in Psychology Today psychologist Alice Boyes calls this type of behavior “avoidance coping.” She believes that: “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” As a (hopefully) analytical lawyer and a lifelong “overthinker,” I recognize myself in these words: “When people engage in … overthinking … they are typically trying to think their way out of uncomfortable emotions” One emotion Dr. Boyes cites is “uncertainty.”

She has three prescriptions for beginning to overcome avoidance:

– Recognize that it doesn’t work.
– Recognize its costs.
– Learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and thoughts.

I would like to add some prescriptions of my own:

– Remember how successful you are, and then “fake it ‘til you make it.” You may have paid the price for avoidance in the past, but that didn’t stop you from getting pretty “high on the food chain.” Even in this wonderful and prosperous country, relatively few people graduate from college, let alone law school. You have it in you to prepare for and pass the bar examination. Even if you can’t do it all the time, act successful by promptly tackling each problem for as long as you can last. The odds that you’ll follow through once you start are definitely better than they would be if you did nothing.

– Recognize when you’re uncomfortable. I completely agree with Dr. Boyes’ suggestion that we “avoidants” learn to tolerate emotional discomfort. But, with respect, I’d pull her back one step first. That’s because, in my case, it was only after the fact in each instance that I recognized that I had been avoidant because I was uncomfortable and uncomfortable because I was avoidant. In the moment, that avoidance felt like just another annoyance not to pay attention to, like not getting a seat on the bus to work. That kind of thinking can hurt you though. Even if you’re not ready to “tolerate,” you may be ready to “recognize.” And if you are, you should.

– Admit you have a problem. Then forgive yourself, but don’t excuse yourself. It is heartening to me when a student concedes that he or she is avoidant. And it helps a lot. That’s because, with the issue out in the open for examination and discussion, it can become just another one of the issues that can be dealt with before the exam.

So, if you think you might be avoidant, don’t delay! Start thinking about this challenge, talking to others about it, and seeking help. And … from one avoidant person to another – Good Luck!

The Almost Daily Word – The Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Exam Preparation – #7 – Naivete

It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption. James Thurber – American author, cartoonist, and celebrated wit.

Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 7 is:

Being Naive

One common definition of “naïve” is “lacking in worldly wisdom.” A law school colleague offered this cold and, I think, accurate take: “…no experience with adversity… never been called out.”

“Naïve” and “innocent” are commonly used interchangeably, and to be naïve is often considered charming, as in: “Andy had a sweet, naïve look when he smiled.” However, more hard-hearted synonyms may be more appropriate in describing some 3-L’s, 4-L’s and, especially, repeaters: “unrealistic,” “gullible,” or, (we’re talking really cold-hearted here) “ignorant.” I admire the definitional distinction drawn by one person on “Yahoo! Answers:” “Naïve is when you already know. And innocent is when you shouldn’t know yet.”

In my opinion, if you are preparing for the California Bar Exam, you are being naïve if you presume that a commercial bar preparation course alone will suffice if:

– You have taken seven or fewer “bar courses” in law school, even in an ABA school.

The California Bar Exam tests 13 different areas of doctrinal law. All are taught in law school courses that typically last at least one semester. All are also taught in commercial bar review courses that typically last about two months. Seven is a number that I’m picking out of the air. But let me ask you this: How much real thought have you given to evaluating your ability to learn enough about the remaining six substantive bar exam topics in two months to pass the exam?

You may argue that there is a common understanding among law students and commercial courses that some subjects and, within those subjects, even some topics, are less likely than others to be tested. My response, as a former member of the California Committee of Bar Examiners and a former California State Bar Examinations Director is this: Both the Committee and the staff of the Office of Admissions believe that applicants should be prepared to address any topic within the scope of the examination. Ignore this tip from an insider at your peril.

– Your cumulative GPA in bar subjects in law school is 2.8 or less.

At least one longitudinal study has indicated that students at an ABA-accredited school who have taken seven or fewer “bar” courses in school and who have achieved a cumulative GPA in those course of 2.8 or below are as much as twice as likely to fail the exam on their first attempt as their classmates.

If this profile fits you, let me ask you this: If your law school offers bar preparation classes, have you taken all of them? If your law school offers individual academic support counseling, have you taken advantage of it?

If any of the clues to Sin #7 rings a bell with you, are you prepared to adjust your law school study or Bar Exam preparation? If you’re not, are you being innocent or naïve?