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Working While Studying for the Bar Exam

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Studying for the bar is a trying time – mentally, emotionally, and, often, financially. This year, whether it’s because the bar exam was postponed, or it felt too risky taking the bar during a pandemic, or because some weren’t successful during the first go-round- many may be working while studying for the bar.

Working while studying eases the financial aspect but it’s also exhausting and stressful. One must take care not to let studying affect the  work quality at one’s first legal job. Or to let one’s work keep you from passing the bar.

I’ve studied for the bar twice – once after law school, and I took a different state bar while I was working. Both times I passed, but both times sucked. Here’s what helped me.

Get Your Mental Game Plan On

Some of you may be taking the bar for the first time or for a second time. Both have challenges.

If it’s your first time taking the bar, it’s the unknown. Most of us haven’t taken multi-day long knowledge tests before. I for one had never taken a standardized test wearing a suit before (oh Virginia). Many of us take the bar in buildings we’ve never been to before, sometimes in cities we’ve never visited. There is a lot of fear in the unknown and must of the information is brand new to you.

If it’s not your first time, it’s battling your demons. First, you have to forgive yourself. Look, lots of people failed the bar exam the first time and have gone on to be successful. It’s not a measure of how smart you are or how successful you will be as an attorney. Then you have to figure out a game plan. You have to figure out what went wrong and work to repair those holes. Focus on the areas where you’re weak so that you can come out stronger this time. Finally, feel good that you’re not starting from scratch. It might take a second time to really let that first-time bar prep sink in, but you’re not starting from the beginning again.

Get Your Emotional Game On

During the pandemic, it can be too isolating to be alone all the time AND have the stress of working AND studying for the bar.

Personally, I can’t do study groups. But I need people with whom I can decompress. It’s important to find this group well before you realize you need them. Set up a regular Zoom call with fellow exam-takers, law school classmates, friends, family. Talk about the Bar or don’t talk about it. You can’t study and work 24/7 – you need social support.

Also make sure you eat well and rest. Studying for the bar is a marathon and you need to prepare your mind and body for it. It does no good to burn out in the first few miles.

The American Bar Association also has resources for law students dealing with mental health. Personally, it really helps me to have a third party to vent to, no holds barred. It helps to find this person well before you’re in the thick of studying and working.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Look ahead at your work plan, your bar studying plan, and your life. Be aware of weeks when you might not have time to study or might have to take some time off work (like the week before the exam, perhaps). Many law employers are going to be sympathetic to your plight so long as you keep them notified of your availability and constraints. You can’t alienate your work when you’re studying, but you can’t afford to fail the bar and go through the whole process again either.

Once you realize that you might have less time in the future, you know you should be working much, much harder now. Actually, even if you seem fairly open in the future, you should start early because you don’t know how quickly your free time will fill up.

Make Your Money Game Plan

Some law students take on additional loans in order to pay for their bar expenses. Theoretically, you may not need extra money if you’re working already. It’s like being in law school but there is money coming in finally!

But I understand starting out your life as a lawyer is an expensive time – with security deposits, moving, creating a wardrobe, furnishing a new apartment, etc.  It can be temping to take out any extra money you can to make the transition easier.

Remember, though, that the more you take out, the more you’ll have to pay back. I would advise to live on less rather than taking out more money. With a pandemic and all your time being occupied with studying and working, you won’t have time to spend money anyway. Still, if you have any of the following imminent needs, a lifeline surge in money with a low interest rate might not be a bad idea.

Calculate Your Imminent Needs

By the time you’ve graduated from law school, your stuff might need an upgrade. When I graduated from law school, my car was 13 years old, my laptop was 5 years old, and I still had a dumb phone (this was 2012 so a little behind the times but not ridiculously so). I had one business suit and no business clothes. Now, I didn’t need to replace these things immediately, but I figured I would need to place them soon.

You don’t want your laptop to conk out on you during the BAR exam or when you’re studying. So if your computer is on the fritz, that’s something you’ll need to budget for stat.

Consider Cheaper Bar Prep

BARBRI is crazy expensive and really only makes sense if a law firm is paying for your bar prep. But if your law firm gives you incentive to save money or if you’re paying for bar prep by yourself, then you have to consider the thousands you would save with an alternative test prep.

For what it’s worth, everyone I knew who used alternative test prep passed their respective bars. They’re all teaching you the same stuff and you can be successful with BARBRI, Kaplan, Themis, and many others. Of course, don’t let the cost be the determining factor. If you believe that a certain bar prep is your ticket to passing the bar, then beg, borrow, (but don’t steal) to get it.

Delay That Which is Not Necessary; Spend to Save Time

I didn’t furnish my apartment until 9 months after I started working. My early law wardrobe was very basic and sparse. I never bought a new car even after 7 years of working at a law firm. If you don’t have to make more decisions or if you don’t have to spend money on something until after the bar exam, I would delay.

On the other hand, if a cleaning service, meal prep service, or childcare would give you the time you need to study for the bar, spend, spend, spend.

Conclusion – Working While Studying for the Bar Exam

Working while studying for the bar during a pandemic is a hard time, but as a law student, it’s not like you haven’t already overcome a multitude of difficult situations already. I wish you luck.

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