10 Tips for Working and Studying for the Bar Exam

Although the next bar exam is months away, there are some bar exam takers who are already starting to think about it—those of you who are planning on working while studying.

It isn’t a surprise to anyone that it is easier to study for the bar exam full time, rather than balance studying and working. However, for many this just isn’t realistic. Financial and employment realities make it impractical to stop working in order to study. So what do you do? You can be successful working and studying for the bar, but it takes thoughtful planning and often a longer preparation cycle. Here are 10 tips for putting together your bar exam plan if you are planning on working and studying.

  1. Be realistic about your work schedule. When folks talk to me about working and studying, the first question I often ask is how much they work each week. Students typically answer with a conservative estimate about how many hours they “should” be working a week. But throughout the bar cycle I hear about weeks where they end up working extra shifts or longer days or even weekends. If this overtime work schedule is the norm, you need to be honest with yourself about it from day one. You need to carefully evaluate how much time you have outside of your job to study (and still live your life). Be realistic about your job responsibilities, so you can plan accordingly. Always feeling short on study time because of extra work responsibilities is not going to help you be successful on the bar exam.
  2. Be realistic about your study schedule. Along with being realistic about the hours you are working, you need to be realistic about the hours you are planning on studying. Students often say to me that they can study 20 hours a week, but then when I ask where those 20 hours are coming from, it becomes difficult to find them in the week. So sit down with a calendar and figure out when you are going to study. And as you do this, also try to find some real “blocks of time” when you can study—not just an hour here or there. Blocks of time (at least two hours) often allow you to get more done and really focus on the work at hand. It is also important to find some time to study when you are not exhausted. If you are able to study only late at night (and are not a night person) you make studying harder than it needs to be. Most of us cannot be productive until midnight each night. So consider the hours you are going to be studying and whether they will be productive hours.
  3. Be realistic about “life” time constraints. Life doesn’t stop for the bar exam! If you have family responsibilities (kids, parents, significant others, or even pets) you need to evaluate how you are going to balance the time it takes to meet those responsibilities and still study. This may be the most difficult balancing act during your bar prep. But if you don’t invest some time in developing a plan, life can definitely get in the way of your bar exam success.
  4. Start studying earlier. Because you are not going to be able to study full time (which for many is approximately 40-plus hours a week), you may want to consider beginning to study earlier than the preparation period. Many students find they can work on the performance test part of the exam (which doesn’t require any memorization) further out from the exam and still find the preparation effective. You can also start reviewing law, especially the law tested on the MBE portion, and start working on multiple choice, while leaving the essay preparation to the few months prior to the exam.
  5. Study smart. When you are working and studying, you don’t have a lot of time to mess around with ineffective studying. So you need to get the most out of your bar study time. In order to do this, you have to be very frank with yourself about how you learn effectively. Do you learn from listening to lectures? Great! Then listen to lectures. But if you are a visual learner and you need to write things down to learn them, hours of lectures may not be the best use of your time. (Check out this post on approaching your bar exam study like you are playing Risk.)
  6. Select the right bar exam review provider for you. You need to make sure that you select a bar review provider that allows for longer preparation periods (if that is appropriate) and provides the type of assistance that you need. Take time now to research your options (commercial courses, online programs, apps, and tutors) so you are ready to go when it is time to start preparing.
  7. Use technology. I know many bar studiers who have found technology helps them study effectively. Some like using online MBE programs such as Adaptibar to do MBE practice on their lunch break. Or you can use a bar review program that runs on your iPad so if you finish work early, you can sit at your desk for a few hours and continue to get things done. Regardless, technology is making bar prep easier and more efficient, so take advantage of these programs to help you stay on top of your prep.
  8. Take care of yourself. Just because you feel there aren’t enough hours in the day doesn’t mean that you can’t set aside time for some breaks. Burnout is a real issue during bar prep—especially when you are trying to balance work, life, and studying. I have known students to forgo sleep to such an extent that they lost the ability to focus and became so sleep deprived that they had to see a doctor. Don’t let this happen to you! Listen to yourself and give yourself the downtime you need to perform at your best.
  9. Commit to your bar study. This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you want to successfully study for the bar exam and work at the same time, you need to make sure you are fully committed. It is going to be hard. You are going to have moments where you question whether you are doing the right thing. So make sure you are committed to the process and able to give it your all. Without that commitment, you can’t set yourself up for success.
  10. Try to get time off around the exam.  Lastly, most students appreciate having time off around the exam, either the week before or days before. If you want time off, however, you should talk to your boss now to try to get things set up in advance. You don’t want to wait too long only to find out that you can’t get approval and have to work right up until the end.

Working while studying can be done, but it is a challenge. Have you worked and studied for the bar exam? If so, share your lessons learned in the comments below.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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5 comments on “10 Tips for Working and Studying for the Bar Exam

  • I worked in a law office the last year of undergrad and through four years of law school. I was a legal assistant/office manager and later a certified law student. My job was demanding. I made the mistake of working the first few weeks of bar review, then I realized that all my past effort would be for naught if I didn’t pass the bar exam. I took a leave. Studying was my full time job: attending bar review, reading the materials, practicing 30 minutes of multi-state, multiple choice questions each day, reviewing past essay questions, and writing a practice essay each day. I also took a day long course on the logistics of how to take this kind of test. This taught me how to allocate my time as well as some back-up strategies, like how to throw out offer, acceptance, and consideration as elements of a contract to get *some* points in case I had brain freeze.

    The bar exam wasn’t fun, but when the day(s) came, nothing surprised me. I knew the material and successfully regurgitated it. I’ve met people who didn’t pass the first (or second time). It’s demoralizing and expensive if the bar exam becomes a “do-over.” Assuming you intend to practice, passing the bar exam is the ENTIRE POINT of your law school experience. Don’t blow it. If money is the issue, start hoarding paid vacation days now and saving your money to cover the time you’ll be off work. Cut costs where you can to ease the pressure. Set aside your pride. I bet your spouse or family will rise to the occasion. In short, do everything within your power NOT to work (or if you must – to work the absolute minimum hours necessary.)

  • This is probably my biggest hurdle to passing the CA Bar, but I was a full time scientist before I went on to law school and have had to continue working to support myself (and pay those lofty law school loans). I took leaves of absences and was grateful my employer let me do so while I was attending law school for three years. My school was located in a different state, so on breaks I would fly back to work during holiday breaks and the summer. I put off applying for promotions so that I would not be burdened with more stressful work, but I’m at a juncture where I may get a promotion that may not come around again for a while, so I am debating that while studying.

    As for bar prep, I have a hard time balancing work, family and studying for the CA Bar. I think having to totally shift my mindset after work and concentrate on law is challenging in itself. I have tried working part-time and last time I took the month of the bar off to try to study, but was unexpectedly asked to come back to work the first week of that month due to a large project we had. I think that threw me off a bit. Other tries involved usually just taking 2 weeks off before the bar, which has proven not to be enough time for me. I think the last month or month and a half is critical for me to really hone in and focus on law, so next time I will try to take at least that month off again although I have already started studying this summer with a tutor that I saved up money for. I will probably have only 2 weeks of vacation by bar time and I will have to dock time for the rest of the month if my employer allows me to do so, but it will be worth it if I can pass. It has taken me a while and I have had to skip administrations to save up for the bar and such, so finally passing will be a relief.

    I have taken and passed the WA Bar while working and I think not having to worry about the multiple choice section (when I took it) was a relief because it was one less form of the test that I had to apportion time to. I would go to work and then immediately go to the library for a couple hours (they usually closed within 3 hrs of me getting there) and then I would go home and have dinner, etc. If you are working, you just have to be diligent in your study time and still balance having a life, as you stated above. I have to be careful since I also have a chronic illness that causes fatigue, so I try my best to keep myself as healthy as possible.

    Hopefully this next time will be the last time I will have to worry about this anymore! Thank you for the article – it is so applicable to my life :-)

    • Good luck with your studying and thank you for sharing your story. Many people have struggled to find balance while studying for the bar exam, and it is so helpful for many to hear that they are not alone. Thank you for reading!

  • Thanks for the tip! It really is all about making sure you can run your brain off from one aspect and on to another, that’s the only way to balance bar prep and work.

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