Oh, how time has flown since I took the California Bar Exam. The February test date is around the corner, and, trust me, the July date is not far behind.
I vividly remember preparing for the exam. Not just because it was one of the most excruciating self-inflicted experiences I have ever had, but because my preparation was also an adventure. When recent law school grads across the country began to flock to their nearest libraries to begin two months of intense reading and practice exams, I took to the air from LAX to the Caribbean. I know it sounds reckless, but trust me I meditated on the idea of destination bar prep for a long, long time before buying my ticket to Marigot, Saint Martin. I was met there just five days after my arrival by a good friend of mine who shared my outlook. Many others were supportive. Most thought we were crazy - I don’t blame them. But the truth is that I don’t think my chances of passing one of the hardest bar exams in the country would have been nearly as good if I had been anywhere else.
I have had plenty of time to look back on those couple of months and distill just exactly why I feel the way I do. Now I want to share my insight with you. For those of you who are in the midst of studying now, I apologize that it may be too late for you to pack up and leave the country. You may still find some of the content below to be helpful. For the rest of you, good luck in the future. A destination bar trip may not be the right move for you, but I do ask that you do consider the following...
Long before I decided to study on Saint Martin, I had decided that seclusion was one of the most important things for me to effectively study for the bar. It sounds lonely, I know. I hate to throw reality in your face, but studying for this exam will be lonely anywhere you are. Putting ten uninterrupted hours into anything every day for months will guarantee that. Ugh, then why make it worse?
My first thought was to fly home to Indiana to study there. I wanted out of the Los Angeles area so that I would not be tempted by the same distractions that I had in law school. I knew the beach and hiking trails would be calling my name, and I honestly didn’t think I was strong enough to fight my old, unproductive habits. I also didn’t want to surround myself with other law students. I loved my classmates, but man, every finals period became unbearably tense. It is in our blood, I suppose, to be a bit uptight. I did not want to walk into a library full of that energy every day.
I also knew that Indiana is where my family and old friends are. I would have wanted to spend time with them, and nobody who has not taken the bar exam will ever understand how necessary it is to be completely immersed in the subject matter when you study. As much as I wanted to go home, it wasn’t right for me. It made more sense to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. Somewhere where I could leverage both a language barrier and the discomfort of meeting new people in a strange place. Saint Martin checked all of the boxes. The price was right when split with a friend. We were able to secure a very cozy beachside condo (390 sq. ft., to be exact) plus a round trip ticket for the same amount that we would have spent on rent for the same amount of time. Gotta love AirBNB.
2) Focus and Motivation.
This benefit is a direct result of seclusion. Focusing on the bar becomes inevitable. What else are you going to do when you are on an unfamiliar island where you know only one other person? You definitely aren’t going to spend the day sipping Mai Tais. Not if your law school did its job of stressing the effort it takes to pass. The obligation you feel to do your very best becomes the greatest when you can’t use your friends to justify breaks from studying. You have no excuses. Also, you just took a very unconventional approach to studying. The people who challenge your decision upfront will be in the front of your mind the entire time you are preparing. Prove them wrong.
3) Balance and Relaxation.
My absolute favorite. I have written life balance very highly on my list of important things. Even though the bar exam is demanding, you need to be able to unwind. You will blow your engine if you don't let off the throttle from time to time. The condo we picked was on ground level and had a small back patio that opened onto a quiet beach. The water where we were was ideal for snorkeling. It became routine for me to drop what I was doing once a day to trade my prep books for a mask and snorkel. It kept me loose and relaxed, and I would think about nothing at all for that 30 to 60 minutes. My friend was less consistent with his swimming, but he found calm across the street where he would jog around an old soccer field.
Every night at sunset we would take fifteen minutes to step outside and appreciate our surroundings. Dozens of sailboats from all over the world had dropped anchor in the bay for the summer. The vibrant skies reminded us that, pass or fail, things would be okay. That is an easy truth to forget without a proper reminder.
Keys to Destination Bar Prep:
1) Choose the Right Location.
You don’t have to go to the Caribbean. You don’t even have to leave town. Wherever you decide to study, make sure you are situated for your best performance. Saint Martin was perfect for us for many reasons, but we also had to deal with a very poorly stocked grocery and cold showers for months. This was fine for us, but maybe not for most. Choose carefully and choose wisely.
2) Have the Right Resources.
Technology these days makes things easy. I didn’t have to crack a real book but a few times because everything was available in electronic format. We both used the Themis bar review course. All of the lectures and handouts can be streamed or downloaded . . . until the Wifi goes out for nearly a week. This was a very real problem we had to deal with. Luckily we kept calm and we were able to self-study from the hard copy books we took with us until the problem was resolved, but there are a couple lessons to be learned. First, do your research before picking your study location. Our Wifi was fine most of the time. It was a fluke that it did not work when it did. You can bet I called ahead to make sure we would have access to quick internet before we booked our room. Second, have a contingency plan for situations like this. We had books and pencils and paper. It might not be your internet connection that is the problem. Your laptop could crash or be stolen or worse. Be prepared.
3) Surround Yourself with the Right Company.
My entire trip would not have worked without the right travel buddy. I chose someone with undying optimism and an incredible work ethic. It sounds crazy, but I went into the trip knowing that I was the weaker link. That is why I also chose someone that I respected. There was no way that I would let myself bring him down by quitting early or being a distraction. We happened to be very compatible. Our study styles differed quite a bit, but we understood our priorities and we were able to make it work with little effort. This holds true wherever you decide to study. Surround yourself with the right people, and be supportive of the people around you.
My Advice to Future Exam Takers
1. Take It Day-by-Day. The bar exam is an outrageous combination of a marathon and a sprint. In fact, it feels like someone is making you sprint the full 26.2. You will go crazy if all you do is think about how badly you want it to end. Treat every single day as a new day and not as a small part of a larger task. Wake up, work hard, go to bed, and repeat. If you focus all of your attention on the daily tasks then time will pass. You will get through it.
2. Get Creative With Digesting Information. There are some things that you have to do the way they are presented to you. For example, the online lectures are going to be watched on your computer. A lot of the information you will be studying, however, will just need to be repeated over and over and over and over until you have it down. How you choose to repeat this information may help you keep your sanity. I couldn’t stand to read on my computer after a while. I made PDFs of my materials and sent them to my Kindle Paperwhite so that I could read on the beach on occasion. Then, when reading got old, I took to writing concise notes in a notebook complete with very interesting drawings and mnemonic devices to help retain the information. Eventually my eyes would hurt so that I could no longer stand to stare at screens or my notebook anymore. Instead, I spent a few hours a day reading my old notes into a recorder so that I could listen passively when my body gave out. I processed information in several different ways, but it did take some ingenuity. Some of you are animals and may not need this many approaches to learning.
To those of you who are more like me, I say “get creative,” and if you feel like sharing, we would all love to see comments below about how you approach studying.
3. Do You. Hands down the most beneficial piece of advice I received during bar preparation was to study the way I have always studied. Everyone has their own approach to learning. You have spent years and years in school refining your own technique. Some of you are note card makers - Note card away. Some of you tab every square inch of your books. Good for you. Keep it up. But, one thing that I think is very true is that bar prep is not the time to change up the way you do things. Have confidence in yourself and listen to that voice inside that is telling you when something is working or not. Just do you.
I hope this was helpful to you readers. It is a very crazy time ahead for you. You are facing life changes and a cruel amount of stress, but you can do it. Keep my advice in mind and seek out the advice of others who have been through the situation before. Pretty soon you will be sitting pretty on the other side of the exam with you own war stories and the wisdom you gathered along the way. Best of luck to all of you.