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Just what does it take to get through the grueling exam that strikes fear in the hearts of law school graduates? That could be the beginning of another lawyer joke, but it isn’t. The bar exam is one of the final obstacles standing between wannabe lawyers and their chosen profession. Successful candidates usually come up with a plan and dedicate many hours a day to studying, in addition to taking preparatory courses. Getting through law school does not necessarily prepare you to pass the exam. What follows are tales from several young lawyers who share their experiences in preparing for the exam. They are now new associates with South Florida’s largest homegrown firm, Greenberg Traurig. The lawyers come from a variety of backgrounds. and their experiences in passing the bar exam are as diverse. But their stories also have a lot of common themes. The process of passing the bar exam can be boiled down to a few maxims: focus, prepare and control anxiety. BLIND STUDENT, SOFTWARE PROBLEMS Name: Ronnie Fernandez Practice area: Commercial litigation; real estate and banking Law school: University of Miami I’ve been blind since elementary school, when I contracted a rare eye disease. I quickly learned to deal with my disability and overcame every obstacle that arose. But when it came to the bar exam I questioned whether or not I’d even get to take it. After losing my sight, I was introduced to a sophisticated computer reading program called JAWS, Job Access with Speech, which allows blind individuals to use a computer by converting information displayed on the screen to computerized speech. Today, it enables me to conduct research, read documents and access the Internet. I can control virtually everything related to how it accesses and conveys data. For example, if I am working with a Word document, a computer-synthesized voice reads it out loud and can be controlled to read text by letter, word, line, paragraph, etc. The program was, and is to this day, an invaluable resource to me. In college and law school, my study technique included taping and transcribing every class onto my computer, which was followed by countless hours of listening to my computer-read case books and materials on disk, studying and preparing. This technique, however, was not enough when it came to taking the bar exam. Obtaining bar study materials in a format that I could access was a task in and of itself. The process entailed hours of follow-up and cross-referencing. I received information on disks with the books in print as backup. Some of the disks, however, were incomplete. It required a great deal of legwork to hunt everything down. Studying was even worse. Whenever I do anything in life, I give it 110 percent. For the bar exam, it was no different. I studied nonstop day and night for two months. I studied from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. I was ornery, and no one could talk to me. During the course of the two-plus months I lost 20 pounds. I didn’t want to take the bar exam again. The thought that went through my mind a few times was, “It won’t be any easier taking this a second time.” It turns out that getting the bar study materials and studying for the exam was a cakewalk compared with the actual process of taking the test. Because I did everything via computer, I had to petition The Florida Board of Bar Examiners to allow me to use one with the JAWS program to take the test. I started the process shortly after my first year of law school. My requests were initially turned down because of security reasons and an inability to ensure the computer contained nothing other than the JAWS program and Microsoft Word. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners was also concerned that once the bar exam was accessed through my computer, there was no way to ensure that a copy of it would remain on my computer after the test was over, thus compromising the security of the exam and its questions. I tried to be creative to find a solution. As a final effort, I offered to write The Florida Board of Bar Examiners a check for it to purchase a new computer that I would donate to The Florida Bar for future use by other blind individuals after I used it to take the exam. That offer was also declined. I’m not the first blind person to take the bar exam in Florida. Still, the board didn’t seem to have any experience with a blind person utilizing a computer to take the bar exam. After many discussions over approximately two years, they finally agreed to let me use a computer, but only for the essay portion. They inspected the computer’s contents and sequestered it the day before the test. Since I needed to use my computer to study for the exam, I provided the board with a computer that the Florida Division of Blind Services in Tampa was kind enough to lend me. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners also decided that an individual, selected by them, would read the nonessay portion of the exam to me. The day of the test, as soon as I powered up the computer, there was a problem. The system wouldn’t speak, so I could not get the questions or write the answers for the essay portion. The test had to be read to me and I dictated the essays. But that presented its own challenge. The reader, who was originally there just to read the multiple-choice portion of the test, wasn’t very familiar with the terms and legal jargon contained in the exam. This posed an entirely new series of problems. It was stressful, but I had to maintain my composure and not let it affect me. I wanted nothing more than to put the bar exam successfully behind me. Fortunately, I passed with flying colors and was able to begin my law career at Greenberg Traurig. Now, I constantly search out new ways to move ahead using technology. Significant strides are being made to make information and devices, such as PDAs and cell phones, accessible to the blind. I continue to use the JAWS program and a Dictaphone, and I have a reader who helps me get through volumes of materials each week. For the last year, my reader has been a first-year law student, which makes the working relationship beneficial to both of us. He gets firsthand experience and I can count on someone who has a basic understanding of legal documents and terminology. In addition, I work with a paralegal clerk when I am in court. I was recently contacted by a student who has cerebral palsy and poor vision. He asked for help as an advocate for accommodations in taking the SATs, based on my previous experience in taking tests. I’m in the process of speaking with the testing board to assist this individual in obtaining the necessary accommodations. We’re working with a local nonprofit organization and, hopefully, his experience will be a bit less trying than mine. PREPARATION WAS LIKE A MARATHON Name: Robert Joseph Practice area: Real estate Law school: Duke University Looking back, I think the stress leading up to the bar exam is harder than the actual test. Study groups didn’t work for me. The stress of the group feeds on itself. My brother finished law school a few years ahead of me and I watched him go through the process. From those observations I developed a plan. I created a schedule for the two months leading up to the test date. I knew what I had to cover each week and how many hours to put in. I went to class each morning and studied for three hours each afternoon. My girlfriend was working long hours, so we had about the same schedule. I had very little social life during the week. Because I was new to Miami, I didn’t know many people, but friends came in for the occasional weekend. I did try to mix up my environment and study at the pool or at the beach. In addition to the pressure of passing the bar exam, I felt like the firm was counting on me. I really wanted to pass and get started in my career without having to take the test again. It was a bit like training for a marathon. I pushed myself for two months and slowed down a few days before the test. One of my professors once said that all lawyers are strong in some areas and weaker in others. I didn’t do so well in contracts in law school, so I didn’t kill myself thinking I’d learn contracts in two months while studying on my own. I was worried about sleeping a few days before the test and on the actual weekend. It turned out not to be a problem. I was exhausted. When I finished the exam, I felt like I had done all I could do. I had executed for those two days. I finished every essay and answered all the questions. Walking out of the test is almost anticlimactic. You expect a band to play and to be carried down the streets on people’s shoulders. It is almost surreal to just get in your car and drive home. Then you have to wait for the results. I was nervous. You can never really tell how you did on a test like that. I actually scored higher than I thought I would. It was a reflection of how hard I studied and the effort I put in. I worked harder on passing the bar than anything I had done up to that point in my life. PRODUCTIVE DAYS, MOVIES AT NIGHT Name: Ivonne Barroso Practice area: Commercial litigation Law school: University of Miami When I think back to my bar exam experience, one word comes to mind: Grueling. At graduation I found that for the first time in a long time, I was calm, relieved and study free. I thought to myself, “I just made it through three years of law school.” Then, one day after graduation, reality set in. The bar exam loomed. After speaking to friends who had taken the Florida bar exam, my strategy was to follow the plans offered by the two bar exam prep courses I took. I was a good soldier. I attended every lecture and did all the exercises the instructors recommended. Based on several friends’ advice, I developed a routine that included attending the BAR/BRI lectures in the morning, studying eight to nine hours every day, and getting a lot of rest. My goal was to have productive days and some semblance of a life in the evenings and on the weekends. Nothing crazy, no clubs or all-nighters, but I often had dinner with some friends. I also watched more movies that summer than I had in my entire lifetime. It was a great way to clear my mind and relieve some stress. When it came to studying, I used a broad strategy. Many of my friends who had passed the bar believed their success was due to the fact that they focused their efforts on the multistate portion. I was too paranoid to just focus on one portion of the exam, so I studied equally for both portions. Leading up to the test, I felt like I had done everything I could have done. Did I feel confident that I would pass the exam? Not really. I think it is impossible to feel confident going into this type of exam. After completing the exam, I wasn’t sure what to feel. I did not leave a single question unanswered, which was one of my goals, but I was too exhausted to feel anything but an enormous amount of relief that it was over. Then reality set in two days later when I realized that the results would be arriving in September. I got a little panicked at that point. I guess it’s not really over until you get your results. My timing was good. I went to Europe for a little more than a month and completely decompressed. I didn’t think about school, work, exams or anything. It was exactly what I needed. I arrived from Europe the week the results were released. One of my secret weapons was living at home with my family while I studied. It was helpful to have this great support system. ESTABLISHING PACE AND BALANCE Name: Mario Garcia-Serra Practice area: Environment and government Law school: University of Miami I spent the better part of two months studying for the bar exam. Unlike law school exams, studying for the bar exam required more time, preparation and discipline. The amount of time and money that I had invested in law school was enough motivation to keep me focused. My pending job offer and my planned post-exam trip to Spain also helped. I had a standard routine that I followed for those two months. I attended prep classes in the morning and studied on my own in the afternoon and early evening. I spent a few hours each week working at the firm with which I was clerking until July 4 weekend. After that long weekend, I dedicated myself exclusively to getting ready for the exam. The most important part of my preparation was setting a good pace of studying and trying to balance my days with some rest and distractions. I always made sure to sleep well and to treat myself periodically to some time off from studying. Study groups were helpful, but I was careful to avoid them becoming excuses to get together with friends and not study. On the actual day of the exam, I knew that I had to remain calm and confident. I had heard too many stories of people getting nervous, failing the first time and then having to take the exam another seven times. I walked out of the exam relieved that it was over and looked forward to only having to worry about what time the nightclubs closed in Madrid.

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