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There are two kinds of law school graduates: not those who do and don’t succeed; not those who are moral and immoral; not those who are and aren’t happy; not even those who do and don’t make partner. If you had to pick one dividing factor, it would have to be those who do and don’t pass the bar. It is now early September. Most law schools have just begun the school year, and most firms have already handed out full offers to their summer associates. Combine these two factors and you’ll see why 3L morale plummets like the last scene in “Titanic.” If the main thrust of law school was to land The Job, it seems the 3L year, so long as you pass, is entirely moot, a kind of planned obsolescence of the senioritis kind. It’s like the most beautiful wo/man agreeing to going on a date with you — in a year. After shaving through law school readings every day for two years, wouldn’t you want to give your razor a rest? Colette-Tali, a 3L at UCLA, has just got her offer and found that, now, the last year of law school is hard to get excited about. “The main thrust of these years was to get that job. Now that I have it, I don’t want to spend all my last year — before I start working 100 hours a week — studying. I’m just about done with bar classes. Why shouldn’t I just enjoy myself while I can and forget about law school now that I can do that, too?” The key, she says, is balance. “You’re supposed to relax for some of your third year — so long as you can hack that. If you can ignore your law school knowledge for a few months without losing it, you’re gold. But if slacking will make you forget everything you learned that you still need to know for the bar, don’t throw it all away. Just barely staying on top of things until graduation is enough for me. For those two months of bar preparation, I think that just treating that studying like your full-time job is fine. I don’t understand the people who are so extreme first in blowing off a whole year of law school, and then equally extreme in trying to study 20 hours a day that last week before the bar.” Most 3Ls either balance their lives enough so that they feel they can still breathe, or really watch things fall apart. The kicker is that if you had the first imbalance of not doing your reading for a whole year, you’ll suffer the later imbalance of trying to pass classes, saying good-bye to friends and dealing with graduation — all leaving you exhausted for the bar. One nameless 3L covered her apartment with yellow Post-it notes until you could not tell that her walls were actually painted blue. The notes didn’t contain lists of things to do or facts to memorize but words of encouragement she wrote to herself. “After three years of law school, I could barely force myself to study for another big test, most of whose content I was immediately to forget. I just felt spent. I still do.” Susie, a junior associate in a midsized Cleveland firm, had planned her wedding for two weeks after the bar. Her honeymoon and bar trip were fused into one sojourn of expected bliss. That is, until the results came in. The wedding and Hawaiian vacation had to be postponed while she studied all the more madly for her second shot at the real deal. “I thought that since I never slacked in law school and worked so hard, I had nothing to worry about. You never can tell.” The key, she says, is to make sure that one failure doesn’t turn into another one — that failing the first time doesn’t affect your confidence going in the second time. “I was actually calmer going in the second time. I thought, ‘Damned if I’m going to let my nerves cost me another wedding day!’ ” Susie is now happily hitched, has passed the bar, and is still going to Hawaii — to celebrate her first anniversary. Andre specializes in maritime law at a large Pittsburgh firm. After nearly cancelling his scores, and half-hoping for a fail so that he could postpone real life for one more year, he passed. Yet what surprises him most about the bar is how little it is mentioned in his office, even though it seems unavoidable that at least one of the 20 new associates will not pass. “I suspect — though no one above me has really suggested this — that it’s really not too big a deal if a new hire fails the July bar. I mean, they don’t even start [working] until October. Figure [they would work] a month or two before they would have anything serious thrown their way — at least at this place. So the firm may not mind waiting for you to pass the February bar all that much. If you fail that, well … even I don’t want to think about that.” So is there a stigma attached? “Everyone understands that, once you’re working here, what you did in law school: A) means nothing now; and B) is not indicative of what you bring to the office. Once you’re the real-deal lawyer, no one cares how easily, or with what difficulty, you got here. So, once you pass, be it the first or second time, it’s not like some black streak follows you through office gossip. I will admit that passing the third time is pushing it, but that’s just what the partner who I’m working for did.” Andre believes that passing the bar doesn’t mean you’re ready for the law, just as many believe that deep down, failing to pass doesn’t mean you’re not ready to be a lawyer. “Look, just about all of us are gonna pass. But most still don’t have a clue what they’re doing.” Just as putting too little effort into the bar is foolish, giving too much credence to results is an equally unwise course. “They think that because they passed, they’re ready to roll. Please. Lawyers should have to undergo an official first year of post-law school residency, just like doctors. Externships and internships don’t cut it. What ever happened to the apprentice?” For some, the issue of the bar’s role in one’s life has not eclipsed the issue of whether the bar functions as a coming-of-age ritual for lawyers. The bar is not viewed in terms of proving oneself, but in terms of anxiety, relief, and a final hurdle overcome. That not passing one three-day marathon of a test might separate the succcessful graduate from his fated $120,000 makes one think of money more than one’s readiness to make that money. Some feel that the bar destroys all previous notions of what a test is. Giovanni is currently studying for the upcoming bar. “Before, I was a student, living in student housing, studying for classes taught by friendly professors. Now, the only authority figure is my wife, telling me not to screw this one up so we can start having kids.” Nor is the bar comparable to other frightening law school exams. Added Giovanni, “Everything in law school was just a piece of the GPA pie. Everything was just a matter of how it fit into the big picture of your law school career. The bar is the life you live — and it’s all or nothing. You get a special loan, take the special class and study your special ass off. Now it’s just you and the test. I feel like I’m living a nightmare western called ‘Last Nerd Standing.’ “ Freaking out over failing the first time may make it all the harder to pass the second time. Keeping perspective before and afterwards helps one get through, and past, the bar. Some would say that the stress, anxiety and euphoria of dealing with the bar, learning to take victories and defeats in stride, and dealing with the pressure of knowing your future career depends on your current performance is all a microcosm for being a lawyer. And there lies the real value of the rigamarole known as The Bar: an indicator of legal acumen and potential. The big picture seems to be: Be responsible for preparation before the bar, but not too reverent toward it afterwards. If you passed, you forget about it; if you fail, you should forget that you failed and go in all the more convinced that now is the time that you pass. Despite the focus, the sleepless nights (that is, when you get to try to sleep) and the horror stories, passing the bar doesn’t determine whether you are or aren’t ready to be a real lawyer. Passing the bar only means you’re ready to find out what kind of lawyer you are. Free-lancer Mitch Artman lives and writes in Chicago.

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