By ilise feitshans • July 05, 2016•Features, Advice on Passing the Bar Exam, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law, Myths & Truths, First Women, Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
As a second generation lawyer whose father jumped the legendary hurdle of passing the New York Bar the first try, the Bar was quite high for me when taking my Bar exam, even though I was in a land far away, the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I did and I did, but I recall that it was as much a question of stamina and personal discipline as much as it was about legal information and knowledge of law.
The old adage that Law School has nothing to do with practicing law has, years later, proven to be untrue. Staying awake and using my skills as a student of international and comparative Law have proven to be equally useful before and after taking the Bar, in legal practice and my scholarly works.
Everything I learned in law school I have used throughout my career, but I hasten to note that my legal education was filled with international tangents: Summer institute at the University of Athens School of Law one year, Summer institute at the Institute Rene Cassin in Strasbourg France in French another year, and an international law internship at the United Nations in Geneva Switzerland. These programs were fraught with difficult coursework whose importance however, was unclear to the registrar of my law school and my mentors at the school itself. So it should be explained that it was the unconventional portions of my legal coursework in subjects such as admiralty, jurisprudence, Greek constitutional law and the procedures before the international court in Strasbourg that proved to be a beacon throughout my career. These were part of my transcript but not part of the traditional bar review, so I deployed my knowledge of comparative methods from international law to train my mind and body for studying the laws at home, and indeed I upheld the family tradition of one time only efforts to pass the Bar.
The most important skills for passing the Bar to me, were linked to personal discipline that has helped me throughout the rest of my career.
For example, eating, sleeping, reading, writing and hiding from the world when I needed to produce professionally became the cornerstone of my examtaking ethos.
I respected the 4 key food groups that get people through any exam that is as life determining as the Bar Exam:
1. Caffeine (coffee, not tea and certainly not decaf, what's the point of decaf if you need to stay wake)
2. Grease (those crunch fried foods that make noise when studying at 3 am)
3. Salt (a solid complement to any high Adrenalin diet) and of course
4. Sugar (no explanation required).
Without these four sets of foods and hot meals from my parents and my spouse, I would not have had the energy and stamina to stay awake through some difficult and sometimes boring lectures and hours of memorization.
Also, there was the support team. My husband, who woke me up the same time every morning whether I had slept the night before or not, and my parents, who called every morning to confirm that I was awake. I told my mom dutifully the subject i was prepared to study each morning and woe to me if it turned out I had merely said anything just to get off the phone.
And then there was the act of sleep itself. It was when i was studying for the Bar exam that i learned you can delay or pay someone else to do just about any essential task when really focused on studying, even perhaps having food intravenously, but you can't buy or assign to anyone else the act of sleep for your body. So I learned to listen to my body, doing all nighters when there was superquiet in the streets nearby, staying awake as long as I was productive and going to sleep when I realized I was not productive anymore. I could sleep until I woke up if I had no other chores that day, and by that i mean I worked hard to recall the actual page I had been reading as I closed my eyes before I allowed myself to sleep, and then I would stay in the same place until I was refreshed. This is more disciplined than it may sound, because it requires a sort of self-awareness about sleep, when it is time t quit because the learning curve is at its lowest ebb and when it is time to wake up even though it would be great to have a few more minutes lingering in bed.
Reading and writing are equally less obvious skills. I was always a very quick reader and it took me a long time to understand that reading itself as an act is quite volitional and not natural, even though I can accomplish a reading task so quickly it might seem involuntary or at least not controlled. I disciplined my method of reading and my attention span by writing as many key phrases and trying to turn them into whole sentences as my patience would allow. Subject, predicate. Subject predicate. Only grammatically correct sentences were allowed because grammar is the red flag that signals failing logic, (in the English language).
Hiding from the world was perhaps the least intuitive and most difficult part of this task for me. My best tool would have been glue, if I had had it. Glue? YES, GLUE. Place the glue on the chair and sit i the glue until you are finished .
I was not fast with the glue gun, nor was my spouse so I went into the basement without telephone, without tv or radio and only my bare soul to keep me company as I worked.
I memorized so many rules, some of which remain important. For example, the rule that in evidence it is crucial to set forth a strategy and never veer in the temptation to move away from it because of a burning question about the true underpinnings of a case. Beware of a burning question, for it will consume your emotions, your energy and your time but may never help you win if you knew the answer to it.
The famous example is about the tort case against the local town bully who everyone hated but no one had actually witnessed when he allegedly bit off the plaintiff's nose. Witness after witness was examined and cross examined. No one had seen him do anything, in fact all the evidence tended to prove the bias of each of the witnesses, who recounted examples of how terrible the town bully had behaved towards them, obvious bias that made their testimony irrelevant without any eyewitness account.
But the lawyer defending the bully was really troubled by these stories and at the same time could not escape the burning suspicion that these witnesses had gathered in conspiracy to get that bully out of town at last, or at least to make the bully pay for other past harms.
The lawyer therefore could not resist a burning question, how could all these people be so sure the bully was guilty of this particular act at that particular time, if no one saw the act at all?
So the lawyer was compelled by emotion and energy and drive to ask that burning question of one of the witnesses, "You didn't see the Defendant whom you consider to be a bully bite off the nose, did you?
No one else saw the Defendant bite the nose off either?
And then the burning question that a sensible and reasonable lawyer would have had the discipline I learned while studying for the Bar exam, but that this lawyer had not learned
So How come..? How can it be that you are so sure the Defendant bit the nose off the plaintiff if you did not actually see the Defendant commit this act?
and the answer, burning up the entire defense..
"Well sir, I saw the Defendant spit the nose out".
Discipline, Discretion is the greater part of valor, study hard, study law and remember you can't buy sleep, and once in practice, avoid a burning question.