Could Fear Be Why You Failed the Bar Exam? Not Succeeding at Law Practice?

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce my friend, Elena DuCharme. Elena is a lawyer turned performance coach who works with bar takers (and practicing lawyers) to help figure out what is preventing them from passing the bar exam. And as you might be surprised to know, often it isn’t a lack of knowledge of the substantive law but, instead, fear and anxiety that prevent them from being their best test-taking selves (and practicing attorneys). Thanks for joining me, Elena. 

stress-meter_optCould you share with us a bit about the work you do with lawyers (and specifically bar exam candidates)?

Essentially, I help people overcome the mental and emotional blocks to performing at their best. So, with bar takers, I am not tutoring them in the substantive law. What I’m focusing on is finding out what’s getting in their way, at the root level, and then shifting that so they naturally become more calm, confident, focused, high performers who can pass the bar exam on their next try.

Over time, it became clear why people hit blocks, lose motivation, procrastinate, self-sabotage, and don’t reach their goals. I knew it wasn’t for my clients’ lack of trying. It was something much deeper and more mysterious. And ultimately, what I found was that fear and anxiety — anxiety being essentially stress plus worry — are at the root of just about every “failure” to achieve a goal we set for ourselves.

Fear is this amazing, essential human biological safety wiring that keeps us from moving forward and having what we want. It’s ironic, because it’s both largely responsible for us evolving over these millions of years, and at the same time it’s the root reason we stay stuck and miserable — and unable to pass the bar or build a practice. And it’s mostly operating subconsciously, out of reach of our coach’s friendly whip cracking!

Ultimately, my goal for both bar-takers and lawyers is to appreciate themselves, to know their strengths, and to find a way to tap into their gifts so they can have what they want — whether it’s to become a lawyer in the first place, or to become a confident and accomplished attorney, to like rainmaking, or to be highly productive at work so they can go home and have dinner with their family every night and enjoy a rich, fulfilling private life. Ultimately, it’s about them being happier with themselves and their world. And that’s my barometer for whether I’m doing a good job or not.

I know you frequently work with students who have already failed the bar exam at least once. Are there non-academic reasons that individuals struggle with the bar exam? 

Oh, my goodness, yes! In my experience, people struggle with the bar exam almost entirely for non-academic reasons. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re smart enough to get yourself into law school and graduate from law school, you’re almost certainly smart enough to pass the bar exam. If you take the time to study and commit yourself to the bar review process fully, you should be able to pass.

Where people get into trouble is when they feel or do things that interfere with their ability to study well and perform under pressure. This could include anything from being excessively anxious and stressed — which is well known to interfere with your cognitive capabilities — to procrastinating, spending too much time watching TV or on Facebook, or even overt self-sabotaging behaviors like not keeping up with the bar review, spending too much time goofing off, that kind of thing.

In my experience, these kinds of behaviors are driven largely by the human stress response the fight-flight response. In our modern society, our creature-level fight-flight response gets chronically triggered. It’s terribly inconvenient, because we can’t just turn it off at will. As a result, many of us are walking around feeling some degree of anxiety all the time, which seriously hampers our ability to tap into our strengths and perform at our best.

Interestingly, although most of the bar takers that I work with know they’re freaked out, another good chunk of them are simply mystified as to why they are failing, especially if they have failed repeatedly. So when they start working with me they’re relieved to find out there’s a reason they’re not passing.

And in my experience the root cause is essentially fear: fear of failing and fear of succeeding, believe it or not! You would be shocked to know how many humans are walking around this world terrified of being successful. If you understand how that all gets wired up in a human being, neurologically, it makes perfect sense. There’s a host of reasons someone might fear passing the bar exam — whether they know it consciously or not. They might be afraid of looking for a job, or think they can’t find a job, or that when they’re practicing they won’t have time to have children or a family. Or, they may be a first-time professional and believe their family won’t accept them when they’re a successful lawyer. These are just a few of the fears that can throw a wrench into their exam mindset and performance.

And to top it off, in our culture, we don’t cut ourselves much slack for being human, and therefore somewhat at the mercy of the way our nervous systems work. There is such a premium on success — we’re supposed to be able to walk out our door and go be “successful.”  And then, when we aren’t successful right off the bat, we beat ourselves up and carry so much shame, self-doubt and frustration. It’s heartbreaking, and a rather vicious cycle.

So, strange as it seems, fear of success is indeed one of the root reasons many people don’t pass the bar exam. 

But the good news is that this can be rewired. And when it becomes okay to be successful, when it’s not a scary thing anymore – to their subconscious mind in particular, people suddenly pass the bar! It’s pretty cool.

Thank you, Elena. Please stay tuned as Elena and I continue our dialogue on mindset and the bar exam. If you are interested in more of Elena’s perspective on the bar exam, check out her guest posts over at the Bar Exam Toolbox: Two Simple, Non-Woo-Hoo Ways to Calm Your Nerves and Boost Your Score on the Bar Exam and Why Your Mindset Matters When It Comes to the Bar Exam.

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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