The only thing I remember from law school is my negotiations professor saying this in class randomly: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
It’s so true. Is bar preparation worth doing? Then it’s worth doing right.
By now, you’re filled with determination to study and get this thing over with… but how? Where do you even begin?
You may be lost and not sure where to start heading from here. Like you just ran into a dead end in an unfamiliar part of town and your phone’s about to die (which is why I finally got a car charger after months of denial about how good my phone’s battery actually is).
We talked about how, whether or not you use a “big box” course, this is still a self-learning endeavor. We also talked about how you’re the dean of your own studies. You’re ultimately responsible for learning and internalizing the material as well as the skills to apply the material.
Here’s a first step that will narrow down your routes and simplify the sudoku of choices…
First, get an idea of your study schedule. Craft a flexible timeline that works for you (which I’ll show you how to do below). Not a strict preordained prophecy you must realize to open the iron gates into the bar.
It’s also OK if you end up being “wrong” or have to readjust this schedule along the way. You don’t have to work for the schedule. It’s flexible because it’s a schedule that adapts to your needs.
It’s all about embracing uncertainty, isn’t it? If success were guaranteed, we’d never get anything done. But I’ll try to get you as close to it as possible.
Abraham Lincoln apparently said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Productivity comes from clarity. So let’s get a better idea up front of how we should spend our time. Not based what someone else tells you… but based on what makes sense to you.
So if you’re stuck on where to begin, we’re going to let go of the old and create something new.
You’ll learn the answers to these questions:
- What’s trying to move the progress meter preventing you from doing instead? (Hint: the entire point of bar prep)
- What can you do instead of getting sucked into someone else’s pace?
- How to avoid this: “I already almost completely forgot what I studied a month and half ago! This caused some serious panic during the last 2-3 weeks before the bar, because I was freaked out by the fact that I already forgot most of the stuff”
- What considerations can help you plan your study schedule for effective learning?
- What was my personal schedule?
How to Craft Your Own Study Schedule with a “Macro-managed” Plan (Do This First)
Excrete this idea: You should follow a to-do list given by someone else.
Create this idea: Formulate your own bird’s-eye plan that indicates the broad areas you want to focus on that helps you learn.
Speaking of excretion, to-do items are like dingleberries. They are persistent, there’s more than you think, and even if you get around to them you’ll probably never get rid of them all.
Barbri/Kaplan/whoever not only gives you a fat, one-size-fits-all list of things you must do by end of each day, it just keeps on piling on, distracting you with checkboxes, 27 specific MBE questions they wrote to confuse you, and a perpetually incomplete completion meter.
The implication seems to be, “Follow our to-do list of lectures and exercises, and you’ll pass, guaranteed! What? No, we don’t do refunds, but we’ll let you retake the same course and see if anything changes next time.”
But if a schedule is for everybody, then it’s for nobody.
Would you rather use a Swiss army knife that can sort of do everything for everyone… or get a dedicated chef’s knife to slice clean, a hammer to pound nails, and an automatic bottle opener that won’t break and leave the screw inside the cork?
I mean, yes, there’s the allure of doing it the “proven” way, and the guilt and pressure may drive you to get those things done, but there are too many things you could do.
What about the things that aren’t right for your situation? How do you fit in the rest of your life responsibilities? Your family? Your job? Not everyone’s a 20-something with all the time to study.
The completionist trap is that you’re led to focus more on how to move the progress meter over how you can pass the fucking bar, damn it (hopefully you weren’t reading this as a bedtime story to put your kids to sleep).
Trying to move the progress meter (even if the activities don’t make sense in your unique situation) isn’t the same as focusing on how you can pass the bar.
The former is what I did my first time. It was stressful, guilt inducing, and rigid. Going out once for a Mocha Frappuccino with a classmate threw off the entire schedule that Kaplan forced on me. On top of that, I failed and so did she, so what the f.
You’ll never run out of things to do when studying for the bar exam, so give up on acting like you have all the time in the world to do all of them. You will never get to all of them in the weeks ahead.
It was hard for me to see this, because as humans, we are absolutely terrible predictors of the future. We also can’t tell apart what is important from urgent. We’re on auto-pilot until we notice it.
Similarly, if you try to micromanage each day and assign each hour to a task, that can often lead to unnecessary work and a waste of time and energy (and getting even less done). You’ll often underestimate the time it takes to do those things and switch between tasks.
“Inventing the future is easier than predicting it.”—Alan Kay
Don’t get sucked into someone else’s pace. Instead, introduce flexibility and set broad, realistic targets (I’ll show you an example below). You could call this “macro-management,” the opposite of micromanaging your time.
Spend a bit of time up front, and you won’t have to scramble to clear the default list and then wonder why you’re so overwhelmed.
Here’s what I mean. You have relative strengths and weaknesses, whether it’s a certain subject or an area of the exam (say, the MBE). You can modify an existing schedule or create your own from scratch based on how much work you think you’ll need, ahead of time.
If it turns out you still need more work on one subject, you can lean into it the next day. If you feel better about the subject than you initially thought, you can get a head start on another area. If you’ve cycled through everything, you can just repeat and adjust.
Key phrases are “if it turns out” and “initially thought.” You’re not stuck on one route! If you miss the exit, just get off on the next one and circle back.
Like any budget, allocate and prioritize your time based on your own needs, not things others say you need. But you can also observe your spending patterns and compensate for it.
It would be too cliche for me to say this is “both science and art,” but you get the idea.
If you “macro-manage,” it’s something you only have to do one time that will guide you the entire time. You’re focusing on the process rather than the specific outcome. You’re reverse engineering the outcome so that you know you’d get the desired exposure to MBE questions, essays, and PTs by test week. You’ll get to the outcome if you’re consistently improving.
So let go of perfectionism and completionism. Let’s plan around your situation toward your destination of passing the bar. If you run into accidents along the way, you can always correct course.
Consider the following as you plan.
This is assuming you have about 10 weeks at your disposal; adjust proportionately. In fact, adjust it however you need to. See the bullet points at the end for an overview example.
Buffer days: First, plan to leave a day or two free in your schedule.
You don’t know if you’re going to need extra time, have an emergency, or really need to take a break. Once you’ve “paid yourself first,” you can work in everything else below. Better to end up not needing these buffer days than to get overwhelmed later.
Batching: There are two types of “tunnel vision” you can employ… (1) based on the portion of the bar (MBE, essays, PTs) or (2) based on subject.
(1) In the beginning, when just getting started, I would batch MBE and essay studies separately in order to make studying for each portion streamlined.
- For example, study 1-2 MBE subjects per day and do corresponding MBE questions, for two weeks. After those two weeks, study for and do mostly essay-only subjects for 1-2 subjects per day, for the next two weeks.
- If you’re a repeater, you may already have some background knowledge that doesn’t require much review before diving into the problems.
That’s what I did to become familiar with the law at least for the MBE subjects. Although doing essays helps you learn the law and application of the law, it’s also less fruitful to jump in without at least a background familiarity of the law, hence saving them for after the MBE. However, you may want to start with essays if you need more improvement in that area.
You can use my illustrative examples as a starting point, but you can see that (1) it’s all up to you and (2) you’ll continue to apply your knowledge throughout your preparation.
(2) Once you’ve laid out a basic understanding of the law, you can start blending in portions (such as doing MBE questions and essays on a given day). Here, divide your schedule by subject.
- For instance, work only on Contracts for a period of time. Allocate the number of days depending on (1) how confident you’re with the subject and (2) how much there is to know for the subject. Contracts is a long subject, so perhaps you want to allocate 2-3 days depending on how competent you are at resolving its various issues. When you gain an insight from doing an essay that is an also MBE subject, your work here will carry over to the MBE questions—and vice versa.
- This approach is how commercial prep programs do it from the beginning. What made sense for me was to batch the portion of the bar (MBE) first, as noted above.
Later, you can combine multiple sections and subjects according to your needs and weaknesses. However, avoid switching your attention too much among subjects, review/memorization, MBE, essays, and PTs all within the same day. Batching reduces friction.
So far, you may have noticed that there’s at least one instance of repetition in the above example: MBE → essays → MBE and essays by subject. This will remedy this potential pitfall:
You can go even further so that what you studied sticks in your mind…
Staggered repetition: Work on your weak areas early and late in each batch (such as in the first couple days and the last couple days of a two-week period, such as one described above).
Why? (1) You tend to remember the beginning and the end of a series. (2) Learning is greater when studying is spread out over time (spacing effect).
For example, if you suck at Torts, Professional Responsibility and Remedies like me, ease into each two-week period (or however you batch) with those subjects, then end the batch with them as well.
You can also overlap a subject over two or more days with other subjects for repeated exposure. For example: Crim Law and Torts one day, then Torts and Evidence the next. You need the extra practice, right?
MBE: Figure out your weakest subjects as you go along or if you know them already. Work them in so that you’re spending more time on them. Plan staggered repetition for them. Do and learn from real questions often (include questions for your worst subjects every day or almost every day, but don’t neglect your strong subjects).
Essays: Figure out your weak subjects. Work them in so that you’re spending more time on them. Plan staggered repetition for them.
Performance tests: Plan to do one every week, for example, every Tuesday or a lazy Sunday. PTs can sneak up on you if you focus too much on the other portions.
Closed-book and timed conditions: Over time, you’ll want to wean yourself from referencing outlines, and try them closed book and under timed conditions (at most 1.8 minutes per MBE question on average and whatever the time allocated to your essays and PTs is).
If you want my free guide on kicking ass on the PTs, sign up here to get it.
So what did you learn?
Focus on the macro, the big picture. You can and should customize your syllabus. You’re the dean of your own studies after all.
Keeping the above in mind, here a rough outline of my schedule when I restarted my studies:
- 2-3 weeks MBE review and questions from Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics for the MBE Vol. 1
- 2 weeks continuing to shore up weak subjects including essay subjects, studying with Law in a Flash cards
- 3-4 weeks studying all the subjects, each with an alternation of 1 day of learning and review and 1 day of essay practice (and reviewing the corresponding law)
- 2 final weeks leading up to the bar were mostly for practice, arranged so that subjects I wanted to retain better were toward the end (Professional Responsibility last in my case because it’s practically guaranteed to appear in CA)
- MBE questions were done throughout (mostly from Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics Volumes 1 and 2, and Barbri questions for drilling problematic subjects)
- Performance tests were done every Tuesday for 7 total (these were 3 hours long back then). It’s up to you how many PTs you do; however, the PT is one area where I think quantity > quality
How do you split your time between reviewing/memorizing vs. practicing?
I like to think of it as a sliding scale. As you progress further into your studies, the focus shifts from mostly reviewing the law and memorizing, to mostly practicing, self-critiquing, and reviewing the law. Use a rule of thumb starting from roughly 2/3 review and 1/3 practice to 2/3 practice and 1/3 review over time. If you’re starting with background knowledge as a repeater, the slider might start somewhere in the middle.
Below is the macro calendar I actually used (click to enlarge). It’s not very pretty or complete since it was a note to myself:
This is like zooming out of Google Maps and getting an overview of where you want to go. When you see that different routes are possible, you’ll see that your overlord doesn’t always know best.
Now your turn. I want to challenge you to craft your own macro-schedule, as this is the first step to gaining direction and clarity so that you can do the work. You can do this in the next hour or so. Successful habits include getting something done now while others procrastinate. Sometimes it takes a nudge from someone to help you realize you can do it faster or better than you thought.
Don’t worry about how it looks. Use Google Calendar, Word, calendar format, list format, pen and paper… make Monday the start of the week to fit your preferences… what matters is that you’re paving your own path. It’s your personal schedule that works for you.
Bonus points: Upload and share your macro-schedule in the comments below (or email it to me). I can’t wait to see what you come up with.