Studying For Bar Exam? Despair May Stalk You

There’s a lot of good bar exam study advice out there, much of it addressing the issue of “stress,” but during your summer of study, you might well confront something worse—despair. This is not merely worrying about whether you will pass. It’s the sudden, overwhelming and complete belief that you will not, and in fact, cannot, pass. Despair ambushed me, and it might be stalking you too, so be ready for it.

Despair Pounces Without Warning

I worked full time all through law school and up until two weeks before the exam. I went to Bar/Bri classes in the evening and studied on the weekends. About halfway through the 10 weeks or so of studying, I was alone at home in my basement office one beautiful Saturday. I’d been studying for several hours. I began working on MBE practice questions in torts. As I worked, I felt fairly confident in my answers. After completing ten questions, I checked my score.

I got two correct.

Fear of Failing Makes Us All Little Kids

I like to think of myself as mentally tough. I served three years on active duty in the Army. In law school, I enjoyed being called on in class—and yes, I was one of those annoying people who raised his hand. I never freaked out at exam time, even the two times the exam software failed on me and I had to hand-write. As a student attorney I’d spend thousands of hours in court, opposing highly skilled and experienced public defenders and private criminal defense lawyers, and I had enjoyed it. The Minnesota Bar Exam was not going to get the better of me. No way. Besides, the pass rate was usually around 90%, so if I studied, I saw no reason not to think I’d pass.

But after five weeks of diligent study, seeing that I’d gotten only two out of ten correct just flipped a switch in me. At that moment, I believed, one hundred percent, all the way down inside my most secret self, that I would fail.

I put the book down, walked upstairs, and collapsed face-down onto my bed. And I began to cry. Not tearing up a little, like a retiring athlete at the press conference. Oh no, this was crying more like that of a small child who just watched the family dog be run over by a truck. I realized I was sobbing, and as I heard myself doing so, I recalled what I would sob when I was three years old when I was in such a state: “I want my mommy.” This time, for some reason, I was sobbing, “I don’t want to play any more.”

Just Cry It Out

So, I just let myself bawl like a kid for a while. What else could I do? After ten minutes or so, I realized I wasn’t crying any more. I felt better—as if I had finally emotionally accepted the fear that up to that point I had beaten back with what I had then realized was false bravado. Then, I went back downstairs and kept studying.

When exam day came, it was a relief to just get the damn thing done. Yes, I passed. Then, seven months later, I took Wisconsin’s bar exam and passed that one too.

So if you suddenly feel like sobbing, just let go—let it out. Then keep studying (but not all the time). And good luck.



Get Lawyerist in Your Inbox, Daily

Current Articles
Current Lab Discussions
  • bartaker

    Wow, that was a great write up.
    I have felt that way all week, starting on Thursday and it got the better of me.
    Time to man up and face down some MBE question sets.

  • C.C.

    this is so awesome. thank you.