No Longer a Law Student; Not Yet a Lawyer.

It's official: on May 9, 2010, I graduated from law school. Three years come and gone without so much as a By Your Leave, or so it seems. For about two weeks, which felt more like 48 hours, I luxuriated in a nice little buzz of accomplishment, soaking up all the congratulations and well-wishes from classmates, professors, friends, and family.

Gradually, though, it began to dawn on me that, however significant and worthy of celebration earning a J.D. might be, until I’m licensed to practice law it’s really just a very expensive wall-hanging. In other words, my little good-job glow very quickly gave way to the startling realization that I have to take and pass the bar exam. And to do that, I have to study. There are, I have heard it rumored, people who start working full time after graduation and study for the bar in their “spare time.” These are likely the same people who would say of crucifixion that it’s a dawdle; at least it gets you out in the open air. They’re either legal savants who sailed through their law school classes and exams with nary a care about the difference between reses ipsa and judicata, or they’re severely deluded. I, however, fall into neither of those categories. Which means that I have entered that dreaded fugue state known as bar prep.

My first thought was, "This is all so straightforward and clear. Why didn’t our professors teach it this way?"

At present, there are basically two brands of bar-prep course to choose from, Kaplan/PMBR or BarBri. Apparently, this is a relatively recent expansion of the competitive field, at least where state-specific content is concerned. I signed up for the Kaplan course, not least because it was several hundred dollars cheaper than the more established (read: former monopolist) BarBri, but also because, if my time in the ad game taught me nothing else, I know desperation when I smell it. See, e.g., the BarBri posters sporting a giant Guinea pig or the dire warnings about no one ever having passed the NC bar using the Kaplan course. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt much?

When I began my course, which consists of a three-hour lecture each morning, followed by an afternoon of practice questions and review—my first thought was something like This is all so straightforward and clear. Why didn’t our professors teach these subjects—torts, property, and especially constitutional law—this way? Why didn’t they just lay out the various rules and tests and elements and principles of law from a nice, succinct outline? But the reality is, without the three years (or at least the first year) of Socratic method applied to a vast body of case law, I wouldn’t have the first clue about what lecturers are saying. For the big topics, they condense a semester’s worth of material into about 12 hours of lecture and a 40- to 50-page outline. But the only way this works as a teaching and test-prep method is if the student knows the shorthand lingo. Law school might not prepare you to practice law, but it definitely trains you in the peculiar patois of the profession, so much so that you aren’t even aware of your fluency. Before law school, I didn’t know strict scrutiny from Shine-ola. But now, I can quote Cardozo and balance equities with the best of them.

The problem is that, while the presentation of the information is relatively straightforward, the volume of substantive, black-letter law being presented is truly staggering. Ultimately, this just reinforces an idea that I started to appreciate around the end of my first-year summer: law school and, I suspect, law practice are really less about substance than it is about process. It’s not about what you know, but do know where and how to find out, and do you know what to do with it once you find it? But what’s occurred to me now is that in bar-prep land, substance--and how much of it you can take in, process, and recall--is the process. In purely practical terms, three years of law school is the mental equivalent of prepping for one of those competitive-eating contests; bar prep is simply an exercise in seeing how many intellectual Vienna sausages I can stuff into my cranium between now and the end of July. Waiter, set me up with another plate of 33 MBEs.


tammara said...

Again, congrats Mr. M :)
(And yes, I moved my blog again!)

headbang8 said...

A rather belated congratulations on your degree, Mr. Middlebrow, and even more belated congratulations on your second son. I trust that when you pass the bar in July, you will return to your blog? We miss you.

Jill/Twipply Skwood said...

I don't know the first thing about law, law school, the bar, or much of anything else for that matter...but just from elementary school teaching experience, it would seem like a positive sign that there's as big a difference as there is between the test prep and the regular teaching.

Interesting process on the choice of companies. I seem to remember Kaplan having a very interesting history, although I can't actually remember anything more than that.

And congratulations!

Snag said...

Congratulations on finishing!

My BarBri instructor said there were three levels of learning. Glib understanding, panic, and deep knowledge. He couldn't get us to deep knowledge, so his job was to keep us at glib understanding instead of falling into panic. Fortunately, he explained, glib understanding is all you need to pass the exam.

It worked. I passed. I was working full time, I had a new baby, I hate studying, and yet I passed.

Which isn't to say I'm a superhero. It's a system, and you have to know how to game it. Which is what the bar prep courses will teach you. (I've since taken lots of Kaplan courses as well. They're good.)

If my quick survey was right, my state's pass rates roughly compare to the pass rates your school's graduates have in North Carolina. If you've been taking the review classes, working through the practice exams, and generally not spending your summer in a drunken fugue state, you'll be fine. You'll walk out of there convinced you failed, but you'll be fine.

And then you can spend the rest of your life turning into a hollow, bitter shell. Like the rest of us.

If there's ever anything I can do to lend a hand, shoot me an email at my place.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

@tammara: wherever there's a blog with you writing on it, I'll be there.

@HB8: Thanks and thanks. Given the glacial rate of posting, your belatedness is perfectly acceptable. I do hope to start posting with a bit more frequency.

@Jill: Suffice it to say that I'm beginning to know how those foie gras geese in France feel.

@Snag: Thanks, I knew I could count on you to fire me with inspiration. If anything, my fear of failure on the exam is being rapidly displaced by fear of not securing gainful employment.

Lily Leaf ♥ said...

Congratulations, I stumbled upon your blogspot :) and you look kinda familiar, have you by any chance been a Math teacher at riverdale highschool?

Snag said...

So, how did that bar exam turn out?

Mr. Middlebrow said...

@Snag - Thanks for checking in. As for the bar exam, I'm pleased to say that, as you predicted, I passed, much to my genuine surprise and delight.