Dreadfully Behind: How to Catch Up to the Pack

Above the Law recently posted an article entitled “Top 3 Common Bar Exam Preparation Pitfalls.” I can't tell you how true they are.

I made a list of bar exam tips a week after I took the bar exam and have added to it in the past several months. I hope these tips & accompanying anecdotes help you build your confidence, self-awareness and commitment to tackle the bar exam with all you have, even if you are “dreadfully behind.”

Disclaimer: This post is for those of you currently studying for the Texas Bar Exam. By reading and running with this advice you are assuming the risk & reward. Several of these tips stem from hard lessons learned by yours truly. The others were gleamed from those that came before me. At the very least, I hope you can avoid some of the pitfalls I had to overcome.

The inspiration for this post was sparked by the following question, which was raised by one of my colleagues at a bar prep event:

“Hypothetically speaking…what would be your advice for someone that is dreadfully behind, or haven’t even started studying yet…”

The audience roared with nervous laughter. If you are dreadfully behind, or haven’t even started studying, pay very close attention. I’ve been there. The question my colleague raised was definitely on my mind but I was too proud to ask it. I’m glad he asked it because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. To be honest, I didn’t get serious about my preparation until after July 4th.

 #1 - Keep yourself from ruminating on the reason you are dreadfully behind

The reason you are behind (“I had to work” or “I was enjoying post-grad life too much”) does not matter. Try to compartmentalize them, at least not now. These thoughts will hamstring your preparation.

(an aside)

I started bar prep with seemingly good intentions. I drove the almost 40-minute drive to attend the first day of instruction. At the time it didn’t seem like a good use of my time so I did not continue. However, I did most of what I was supposed to do the first week.

When I was asked to work in July, I didn’t say no. My alma mater abruptly and without warning changed its name in the middle of the night. When I discovered this, I wasn’t happy to say the very least. Also, I had to move out of my apartment because the smoke from the Cleburne Cafeteria fire damaged it. Needless to say, I had a host of distractions.

Very soon I was dreadfully behind, and I didn’t kick it into high gear until the last weekend in June. At this point I was so behind that I had to pretend I knew what my colleagues were talking about at a bar prep event. So behind that I was convinced, Barbri had already wrote me off as a goner. I’d been told, “bar preparation is like a marathon.” And, “if you get behind, it’s very hard to catch up.” Although there is some truth to that, it’s not what you should focus on because that’s adding stress to an otherwise stressful undertaking. For me, this compounded my stress and caused mini-panic attacks.

#2 - Focus on what you can accomplish in the next 3 weeks

Your end goal is to pass the bar exam. To accomplish your goal you have to cover a lot of ground but let’s face it. If you are dreadfully behind (or think you are), you are unlikely to complete a 100% of the material. Your initial goal should be to catch up to the pack. Your next goal is to get ahead of them and stay there. The more distance you put between yourself and the herd, your chances of succeeding increase. There are two metrics you should focus on: (1) the percentage of material you’ve completed compared to the average; and (2) what percentile you are scoring in each subject.

#3 - Whatever you focus on expands

Let’s say your best score is in torts at (75% percentile) and your lowest is in contracts (25% percentile). I’m going to suggest you work on torts first. If you focus energy on your successes instead of your failures, your score will improve dramatically. Focusing on what you are doing right is a powerful.

Think about it this way. Let’s say each subject is a hole. The better you are doing, the smaller the hole, and the reverse is true. If all the holes are worth the same amount, why would take the hard route. Isn’t easier to fill smaller holes?

If you focus your time and energy on filling the small holes first, you’ll be better off. You’ll have a more reliable foundation. Your extra knowledge will help you feel confident. You’ll spend less time on those particular questions, which will shore up more time for the more difficult subjects. Once you have filled the smallest hole, move on. Start filling the next smallest hole.

Do not completely avoid your lowest percentile subjects. Make sure you know all of the tests and make sure you know in what circumstances they apply. However, focusing more of your energy on what you are doing well will be more helpful than beating yourself up for having a couple of low performing subjects.

#4 - Put your hands on every subject

You need to touch every subject at least once, even bankruptcy & taxation. You’ll be surprised what tidbits you’ll remember.  if you watch the lectures, pay attention and take notes. Watch the lectures, take notes or fill out the lecture outline, and pay attention. This will give you an overview of what you should know, and will provide you with helpful ways of remembering the information. If you don’t remember something or don’t understand something circle it. Come back to it after you are done with the lecture and read that part of the outline(s). You can shave hours off the lecture schedule by speeding up the video playback as fast as you can understand them.

#5 - Isolate yourself from distractions

This seems like it should be a given, but it’s easy to get distracted. It’s really important to use every minute and every ounce of energy you have left to support your preparation. Pay attention to the task at hand. Letting the lecture play while you text your friends about being behind or how miserable bar prep is does you no good.

Tell your family and friends that you are a hibernating bear and will be unavailable for the next 3 weeks (unless they want to cook & clean for you without interrupting you). At this point in the game, you can’t let anyone or anything sabotage your future. If you want this license, you’ve got to earn it. Put in the time and put away the distractions.

#6 - Physically cross off what you’ve completed

Clicking a button didn’t fill me with nearly as much accomplishment as making a list and physically crossing it off. For me it is important to see what I accomplish in a day and have the ability to adjust my list for the next day accordingly. I always scheduled more than I could handle but

Start your day by writing out everything you want to accomplish today and tomorrow. Throughout the day cross off what you have completed on your physical list and check it off electronically. This has a profound effect at keeping the stress at bay. Anything you don’t finish today, put at the top of tomorrow’s list.

#7 - Give Yourself Variety

(an aside)

I thought it was a smart idea to attempt all of the property lectures (9 hours) in one day. About 4.5 hours in I’m … “Zzz Zzz Zzz” …at the table. Guess which essay I did the poorest on? Property. Make sure you give yourself some variety so you don’t fall asleep.

#8 - Take a minute to chart what you are doing with the time you have left.

Start from the day of the exam and work your way back. Regardless of what I had on my overdue to do list for Barbri, I supplemented with extra work on the subjects throughout the day. This is a combination of giving yourself variety and focusing on what you can complete in the time remaining.

I probably spent more time developing this block system than I should’ve. However, this chart system gave me a sense of security knowing that I hadn’t over or under studied on any subject. If the following block system was confusing in high school, you may be mortified of this system so just keep scrolling to #9.

I made myself a chart of all the subjects, and split them into three categories (Day 1 Subjects, Day 2 Subjects & Day 3 Subjects) and three blocked days. Day 1 only has TX Civ Pro, TX Crim Pro and the Multistate Performance Test. Day 2 has 8 subjects (Contracts, Torts, Real Property, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Civil Procedure and Evidence) so I took a subject I was good at and coupled it with one I wasn’t. Day 3 has 12 essays with 6 groupings of two so I kept those grouping together so I would start to see them as a couple. Seeing them as a couple lowers the chance you mistake a wills question for a marital property question.  For Block A I’d study:

  • Day 1 Subject
    • Texas Civil Procedure and Evidence
  • Day 2 Subjects
    • Torts, and Contracts
  • Day 3 Subjects
    • Business Associations,
    • Consumer Law, Guardianship and Trusts.

The next day for Block B, I’d study

  • Day 1 Subject
    • Texas Criminal Procedure and Evidence
  • Day 2 Subjects
    • Criminal Law and Procedure, and Constitutional Law,
  • Day 3 Subjects
    • UCC Subjects (Article 2, Commercial Paper, and Secured Transactions), and Real Property (including Leases & Oil Gas)

For the third day, Block C, I’d study:

  • Day 1 Subject
    • The Multistate Performance Test
  • Day 2 Subjects
    • Civil Procedure, Evidence and Property Law
  • Day 3 Subjects
    • Community/Marital Property, andFamily Law.
    • Wills and Estate Administration

 #8 - Start at the very beginning, it’s a pretty good place to start.

Trust your bar prep course, they organized it that way for a reason. The best place to start is diving into the MBE subjects so you can sprinkle questions sets into the days you are focusing on another subject.

#9 - Bring study materials wherever you go, you never know when there will be down time

(an aside)

On Day 2 I got locked out of my hotel room for 2.5 hours without any of my exam materials. I had just gotten back from working out and the battery that opened my door decided to die. We tried everything. Ultimately, they had to use a crowbar to get into my hotel room. Can you imagine how stressful that would be to have all of your exam materials locked up in one place and inaccessible for almost 3 hours the night before your exam? It would’ve been much less stressful if I had brought an outline with me.

#10 - Stay in a hotel near the testing site

You shouldn’t be spending your time stressing out if you are going to make it on time. You shouldn’t have to worry about getting into a wreck. You should be calm and focused on conquering the bar exam.

#11 - Pack your ziplocked bag the night before

You will save yourself a great deal of stress if you go to sleep knowing everything is where is should be. Double check you have your ticket and ID before you leave your hotel.

#12 – Keep your ID in your pocket or in a safe place

I lost my ID. For those of you that don’t know identification is required to sit for the Texas Bar Exam. I showed up ready to go and I couldn’t find my ID. I swore up and down that it was in my ziplock bag but it wasn’t there when I went to get it. By the time I discovered this it was raining outside. So, I ran back with all my stuff and tore my car apart looking for it. I didn’t find it so I was convinced they weren’t going to allow me to take it. The entire time I’m walking back - in the rain mind you -  I was thinking, “they’re not going to let me take this exam. I’ve wasted a month of my life away.”

Thankfully they showed a bit of compassion and let me take the exam. I unbuttoned my drenched shirt and hung it on my chair. As I was putting on my ESM hoodie they started giving the instructions. Just in the nick of time. At the end of the three-hour session I see a proctor walking down my aisle looking around. She stops at my table, looks me up and down, checks my name tag and places my ID in front of me.

#13 - Some essays will take longer to write than others

I spent almost 50 minutes on my wills essay but only 15 on my statutory property essay. There are two reasons for this. First, I knew more information about wills than I did about the property code. Secondly, there was more to cover in the wills question than the property code one. At least two of my colleagues were in my boat, freaking out about spending so much time on the wills essay. This is normal. But know that if you spend more than 30 minutes on an essay you will have less time on the others. So be strategic, and spend more time only when necessary to get all the points you can.

#14 - Bring something for breakfast to eat on the way

I was so focused on the task at hand I forgot to pack anything to nourish my body. As a result my first morning was more hectic than it should’ve been because I was scrambling to find something to eat.

#15 – Plan for brain-dead moments after the bar exam

Make plans to go home or to your hotel afterwards to get some rest. Avoid the urge to go and celebrate immediately. I went out immediately and I paid the price. I left my Alumni Reception and my car was gone. My first thought was it was stolen, then I realized I had parked in a no parking zone. On any other day I would’ve realized, “I can’t park here!” But after writing 12 essays, I didn’t have any more brain juice left.

Or if you don’t stop to juice back up, grab a close friend or a family member you can trust. They will, at the very least, keep you from making brain-dead decisions like parking in a no parking zone.