The Almost Daily Word – Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Preparation – #1 – Meaninglessness

There was an enjoyment to being alive, he felt, that because of an underlying meaninglessness … (one) experiences life in that hurried, worthless way one experiences a mistake he could no longer get at. Tao Lin – American novelist, poet, essayist and short-story 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 1 is:


Several years ago, I had what I guess you could call a crisis of meaning, or, more precisely, a crisis of living without meaning. It was brought about by a perfect storm of personal tragedies. It seemed as if nearly everything that I’d put my faith in was gone – had failed me. I was bereft. For a while, identifying what meant anything to me was both a huge challenge and a constant preoccupation.

I kept on through the sleepless nights, kept working, kept going to the gym, kept thinking, kept faith. What choice did I have? Gradually, thank goodness, time passed and life began to pick its old colors back up – and many new ones as well. My soul and spirit pulled me along in new directions. One was tutoring and, eventually, teaching at a law school. Another was this blog where, for the first time in my very private life I found meaning in talking publicly about my thoughts and feelings. Not only about the bar exam skills and techniques that I’d learned over 35 years, but also about my values – what matters to me. In particular, my view of this exam as a unique challenge to body, mind and soul.

My dark time seemed to leave me with a new kind of intuition, a knack for identifying people who may feel that they are at a crossroads; who may feel a little lost. Regardless of our differences in age, gender or circumstance, I often seem to ask a student or a new acquaintance the type of question that opens a door, starting a very important and personal conversation. What I hear is often sad. It makes me want to help. (After a life of self-centeredness, this ambition to help is probably the brightest new color on my palette.)

More than I’d suspected, many people seem to lose their bearings when preparing for the Bar Exam. On one hand, it surprises me. You’d think that this period of intense preparation and review would be the crowning achievement of academic lives well lived – intelligence validated; ambition, academic effort, generativity and growth all rewarded.

On the other hand, it hardly seems surprising at all. For many students this time can be both an abrupt ending and an uncertain beginning. Twenty or more years of schooling over, the culmination of a sustained ambition that parents, family and friends may have shared, supported, engendered, or even insisted upon. At the same time, an uncertain debarkation on unsettling seas: questionable job opportunities; a changing economy; even a set of disappointing changes from the time so long ago, when becoming a lawyer first seemed so attractive and exciting.

It is certainly possible to pass the bar exam without knowing what it means to you. But, all other things being equal, I’d put my money on the person who has decided that this herculean effort is worth it and, as importantly, has figured out why.

And so, if it is possible to offer “tips” on so weighty a subject as finding meaning in your bar preparation, I offer these.

– Although meaning and humanity’s search for it are timeless and complex, my definition of the word is simple. What is meaningful to you is what is important to you. I use the words “meaningful” and “important” interchangeably.

– There is a difficult part of this simple definition though. It is in the words “to you.” It can feel next to impossible at times to know what is important to you, especially when you are smack in the middle of the effort. It can feel next to impossible to separate what is important to you and you alone from what is important to others, especially when the others are people you love and respect: your family, your friends, your teachers and mentors. You are unique though, and even if you agree with what others believe to be important, you can only profit from making sure that the source of your opinion is truly you.

– Many people I’ve met equate mindless busyness with meaning. (See the quote at the beginning of this blog entry.) Always having a “project” can be a type of avoidance (see Deadly Sin #6). Avoidance of self-reflection, or hurt feelings, or more difficult problems. Avoidance of knowing oneself, “warts and all,” as they say – and then forgiving oneself. So, although it may feel counterintuitive, a simple way to find meaning may be just to slow down, just to sit still for a while.

– Something that may feel meaningless – difficult and unnecessary – may, in fact, be meaningful. One example is when it makes possible something that is unquestionably meaningful. A popular example may be the singer who works her “day job” so that she can sing in clubs and, eventually, compete on “American Idol.” Another example may be passing the bar exam so that you can fulfill your dream of becoming a lawyer.

– Something that once felt meaningful can lose its meaning. Time changes things. “To everything there is a season…” This situation can be the greatest challenge. However, as I’ve come to know recently, the rewards of acceptance and of moving on can be the greatest of all.

And, so, with best wishes to you in your studies, please remember always:

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

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

“Don’t let your sins turn into bad habits.” – St. Teresa of Avila

I’ve been thinking about the California Bar Exam for over 35 years. Scary? – I know!

During that time I’ve been:

– A Bar Exam grader (10 years, about 20,000 answer books)
– A Committee of Bar Examiners member (policy maker, nationwide testing network participant)
– The State Bar Examinations Director (former frightened exam-taker, now in charge – sort of)- A Bar Exam tutor, and
– A law school faculty-member.

During that time, just as most applicants typically are, I’ve been preoccupied with what skills a student must take into the exam to succeed: legal analysis, legal application, organization, perceptive reading, topic heading composition, rule statement memorization, how to write essays, how to write performance tests, MBE strategies … the list seems endless.

Only lately (better late than never?) I’ve begun to reflect on something that has been ubiquitous, but that I noticed only over a long time and only with my “emotional peripheral vision.” Something that I may having been trying to avoid without realizing it. Something that may be none of my business. But something that feels critical to me as a human being struggling to achieve his own successes and deal with his own failures, who wants to share his thoughts with any willing reader.

What self-defeating traits of character do unsuccessful applicants have in common?

Over the next seven entries, bluntly and candidly, but, hopefully, also with the humility of a person who has ignored more than his full share of good advice and often paid the price, I will, indeed, share my thoughts.

I hope you’ll stick around to read them.

The Almost Daily Word – Should You Appeal Your Unsuccessful Bar Result

Unsuccessful applicants may seek reconsideration of their grades based on arithmetic or transpositional errors in the compiling of their scores or a departure from established procedures. They may not challenge the evaluation of their answers, although many attempt to do so.” October 26, 2009 Memorandum to California State Bar Board of Governors
When I was the Examinations Director for the State Bar I received hundreds of letters from unsuccessful applicants requesting reconsideration of their grades.
Most struck me as the applicants’ understandable efforts to “cover their bases;” to assure that their answers were properly graded and the results added up correctly. The Examinations Department duly checked the results. Not a single “arithmetic or transpositional” error was discovered while I was Director.
Many were challenges to the grader judgments. Often they enclosed one of more essay or performance test answers, “regraded” by a favorite professor or tutor, in support of their requests. Since these were “challenge[s] to the evaluation of their answers” I did not have authority to consider them. I agreed with this limitation. I believed in the integrity of the bar examination grading system. I believed in the expertise and professional integrity of the graders, many of whom I’d graded with and known for years.
However, I always felt that one very narrow ground for reconsideration was underutilized and not fully understood by applicants. “Departure from established procedures” is applicable most often to a disturbance at the applicant’s test site. Examples are power failures and excessive noise from inside or outside of the test site. When applicants report these incidents and seek reconsideration, the Committee of Bar Examiners’ pays attention. It often requests that its psychometrician conduct a statistical study to determine whether the request has merit. These sorts of studies rarely come down on the applicant’s side. However, one thing that the Committee does not do, is investigate whether, notwithstanding the outcome of the study, the applicant suffered a unique, individual disadvantage. I always thought that a properly documented request on this ground could succeed.
Test site incidents are rare, but they do happen. If you believe that your grades suffered as a result, speak up.