Why The Bar Exam Is Nothing Like A Marathon

Ever since that fateful, sweltering August day when I first stepped foot into the illustrious halls of my now alma mater, I’ve been told that the Bar Exam, and by extension law school and summer externships, is a marathon. I’ve been encouraged not to burn out to quickly, to dig in deep, to keep the goal in sight, and a hundred other cliched metaphors. Indeed, the entire legal education system seemed geared toward this idea: we had our own pacers during 1L, in the form of an administration that wouldn’t permit more than 14 credit hours a semester or more than 20 hours of work a week.


Spoiler alert: Law school looks nothing like this.

Then, after three years, we graduated, had a week off, and were promptly told to hit the books again, to prepare for the Bar. At first it didn’t seem so bad: 8 – 10 hours of studying a day was actually slightly less work than law school, at least after adding in class hours, clinic hours, working hours, and extracurriculars. But about two weeks in, the oppressiveness of studying for the Bar began to set in.


Actually, yes, this is a fairly accurate representation of law school.

Because those 8 – 10 hour work days carried in to the weekends. During school I’d always managed to take Sunday off, but that was no longer an option. The sheer amount of material to memorize was daunting. The time constraints were terrifying. But worst of all is the isolation.

People like to talk about the competitiveness inherent in law school and, admittedly, it was extremely competent. But it was also extremely social. Classes were set up in a kinder version of the Socratic method, in which students spoke more than professors. We had study groups. I was in a clinic where I drafted briefs with a partner and we discussed strategy as a group of six once a week. We had lunches together, participated in mock trials and mock appellate arguments, and compared our answers to hypotheticals in the weeks leading up to exams. Bar Prep, on the other hand, is an entirely isolated experience. Even if you attend the BarBri or Kaplan lectures in a class format, there’s no participation. It’s just 3 – 4 hours straight of a lecture, followed by an afternoon of solitary revising, flashcard making, sample question answering and sample essay writing. There’s no collaboration or team brainstorming — the test doesn’t require that. It requires a mountain of rote memorization.

So every day of Bar Prep is essentially 8 to 10 hours of solitary confinement. And that’s only for the first four weeks. Week 4 – 6 you’re advised to start doing 9 – 11 hours, and in the last two weeks do 10 – 12. . .but really, it wouldn’t hurt you to study for 12 – 14 hours a week. That means, if you’re doing the bare minimum (ie, me) you’re putting in 70 hour workweeks. And that time is spent entirely alone.


See? Hundreds of people in one room. Dead silence.

And here’s the big difference from a marathon. Marathon runners get encouragement. Friends, families, and total strangers stand nearby and shout “you can do it!” and “you’re almost there!” and “dig deep!” Even marathon trainers get support: people tell them how impressive it is, or “I could never do that” or something along those lines.

Bar Prep studiers just get asked “can’t you just take a break?” or “stop worrying so much, you’ll be fine” or, my personal favorite, “you’re smart, of course you’ll pass.” But what people don’t understand is that we’re all smart. Many states require graduation from an ABA-accredited law school before sitting for the Bar. We’re all smart. We all work hard. We’re a group of hyper-competitive, type A personalities put in a room and warned that less than 70% of all test-takers pass. I know smart people who have failed. I know people who work hard who have failed.

No, studying for the Bar is more like recovering from a long-term physical injury. It reminds me of when I was rehabbing from a torn ACL. ACL reconstruction surgeries are pretty amazing — it’s an outpatient surgery, and you’re out on crutches within a few hours, and walking again within a week. It hurts like hell at first, but by the end of the week the pain only sets in during physical therapy. But here’s the thing about rehabbing: for that first week, when you’re on crutches, or just transitioning off, everyone is super nice. Everybody holds doors for you, and compliments you, and tries to help you out. But the minute the knee brace come off, people assume you’re fine.

They don’t understand the frustration that comes from not being able to run, or not being able to curl up on a couch the way you used to. They don’t understand that every single day you lose out on an hour not doing real exercise, but just moving and building strength in one leg. They ask you to join them in sports and playing games and you tell them you can’t and they just respond “why? you seem all better?”

That’s studying for the bar. All of your friends and family just don’t understand the frustration of not knowing what will be on the test, or not knowing if you’re prepared enough. They don’t understand how terrifying it is to prepare for an exam knowing that you wont’ get an A — hoping for a C. Maybe it wouldn’t be terrifying for them. But for a law student — even for a top law student, with a 3.8 GPA and an offer from BigLaw — it’s a terrifying proposition.

So if you’re going to insist on calling this a marathon, than start treating it like one. Congratulate me for the hard work I’ve put in, and encourage me to do more. Understand that this is an accomplishment — that passing this test will be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life at this point. Acknowledge that it sucks, and then walk away, because I know what needs to get done, and I will get it done.

Just got to lace up my shoes and get running.

And on that note, I enter into my one week hiatus: I fly back to the lovely state of Michigan tomorrow to be a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding (which, yes, I know is crazy at this point, but we’ve been friends for more than 20 years, so what can you do) followed by a little thing called the Bar on Tuesday and Wednesday. Wish me luck!

About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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