Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Family and Bar Preparation

I'm firmly convinced that profession or occupation should take second place to relationships; we are persons first and law students / bar takers / lawyers second. However you choose or define your family, your relationships within this structure are likely to be the longest and deepest relationships of your life. Our families are central to our lives. 

We do a disservice to ourselves if we elevate what we do above who we fundamentally are. Crises such as the serious illness or impending death of death of family or intimate friends can make for difficult decisions.  We should approach these decisions not so much on practical as on moral or spiritual grounds. For example, instead of asking "Will I be able to focus on studying for the bar when my stepfather is in hospice care?", it is more life-affirming to ask "Is it better for me to postpone the bar exam to be with my mother now or to keep studying so she has space to grieve?" In different families, this may lead to radically different results: sometimes it is better to postpone the bar examto be with family during critical times; sometimes it is best to honor the wishes of those we love by continuing to devote our energies to the goal they have encouraged us to achieve. There are no easy answers in a family emergency, only hard choices.

More apropos to most bar takers, however, is managing more mundane family relationships over the ten weeks of studying for the bar. After three long years of law school and an impressive graduation ceremony, our families can be forgiven for thinking that the hardest part is over with and that the bar exam is mostly a formality that will validate our years of hard work. It's especially easy to make this assumption when bar takers are doing the majority of their work online at home. Children clamor for attention; spouses expect us to be more physically and emotionally available; parents suggest outings; cousins assume we will attend weddings, family reunions, weekends at the lake, and other festivities. It's easy for loving families to sabotage bar review with the best of intentions. Or, rather, it's easy to sabotage our own bar preparation by allowing ourselves to be sidetracked. By taking a long-term approach we can maximize the effectiveness of our bar review while remaining fully engaged with our families.

First, understand your family dynamics and plan accordingly. If you move back in with your parents to save money during the bar review period, for example, will you waste time or be more efficient? Several years back I talked with a 3L who was moving into his mother's house to study for the bar. I asked whether the living situation would distract him from effective studying. "Oh, no," he laughed. "My mother is a schoolteacher and the most disciplined person I know. After dinner she'll probably look at the clock and tell me I have two more hours of studying to do so I'd better get to it." Other former students have reported the exact opposite: parents would repeatedly drop in while they were studying, disrupt their focus, and guilt-trip them into time-wasting activities. If you know the latter is more like the dynamics in your family, you're better off in the long term spending extra money for rent so you can concentrate. Likewise, it is the rare parent who can study effectively with small children present. Your bar review will likely be more efficient if you study away from home: greater concentration will more than compensate for the time it takes to commute to library or school, and you will have the added benefit of associating with your peers

Second, create a schedule and stick to it. Bar review is like a full-time job (or full-time job with regular overtime) both in hours and in commitment. Sure, if you have a full-time job you will occasionally leave to take the dog to the vet or go to the dentist, but you mostly keep regular hours and pay attention to the task at hand while you're at work. Do the same with bar review. Having a regular schedule allows you to schedule in a good amount of family time when you are "off work." Make the family time commitment just as important as the bar review, even though the time will be shorter. When you're with family, truly be with them, not mentally running through the Erie doctrine or the parole evidence rule. Not only will this show your loved ones how much you treasure them, but it will also make it easier, both for you and for them, when you return to studying.

Finally, it's vital to communicate openly and honestly with your family, not only as you start out but also throughout bar review. Tell them this is an important time requiring as much or more effort as law school. Let them know how intense the bar exam is and how it tests you in ways you never encountered in law school, such as by having multiple subjects in one question, testing over a dozen subjects at once, and testing subjects in random order. Ask for their patience, their help, and maybe even their forgiveness. Acknowledge that you might be stressed and cranky, especially in July. Put your bar prep activities on a shared calendar so they can get a visual picture of what you're doing. And most importantly, let them know how much you cherish them even when studying for the bar exam is requiring the bulk of your time. Honoring your relationships during bar review will not only pay off in more effective studying but will give you a great start to balancing work and life once you are in practice.

(Nancy Luebbert)

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