By Ms. JD Editor • July 28, 2021•Writers in Residence, Features, Bar Exam
It’s hard enough to study for the bar. It shouldn’t be harder if you learn differently.
I always end up reflecting on some form of isolated feeling during law school. As an autistic law student, I often felt alone. I didn’t know anyone else who had a similar disability until nearly the end of my 3L year and I spent law school accommodating myself in how I studied, took notes, and navigated the law school culture.
I’m hardly the only one who was neurodivergent in law school, in law practice, or in that in-between where you’ve graduated from law school but are about to sit for the bar exam or are anxiously awaiting results. For those of us who are neurodivergent –- have differently wired brains, including those with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and mental health disabilities alike – the bar exam is a special brand of difficult to study for. For neurodivergent women, it’s even more staggering since many of us aren’t identified as children. Yet a lot of us make it to places like law school despite barriers to access because we are high achievers, motivated, and determined to thrive in a world designed without us at the forefront.
But once we get in the door, we’re sold the same story as everybody else during law school: study rigorously, take a prep class, complete 70-80% of it, and trust the process because what you put in is certainly what you’ll get in return and pass the bar. But what if the prescribed wisdom doesn’t suit how you learn and how your brain is wired?
I feel extremely fortunate to have passed the Florida Bar exam on my first try, especially when conventional bar study wisdom often went against me: I studied at home, I wasn’t the best outliner, and I didn’t always agree with what my commercial bar prep class recommended each day (sometimes it felt too simple, other times it felt too overwhelming). I also didn’t know how exam day would feel, or how much of a sensory overloading feeling the convention center would be. To help you avoid some of my mistakes, and to somehow make this often horrible “rite of passage” more bearable if you learn best outside the norm, I did my best to scrounge together some of my best tips and advice to make the bar exam process less terrible if you’re a neurodivergent learner.
Studying for the Bar Exam
No matter who you are, studying for the bar exam is tedious and stressful. There are a lot of things that go into studying smarter, not harder, and a lot of those things feel extra hard if you’re someone who struggles with prioritizing tasks, staying organized, and avoiding distractions. We’re also told there is one magic formula of study plans (8 hours a day, 7 days a week, use certain supplements and commercial programs) - but if you learn differently than your neurotypical peers, this can be a recipe for burnout and frustration.
Picking the Right Bar Review Program
During your time in law school, you probably became very familiar with the smiling representatives from the various commercial bar review companies. Outside of the financial commitment, as a neurodiverse learner, you might be asking additional questions related to how progress is tracked, if you get regular check-ins, if there is an in-person lecture component, or other accessibility features involved within the course.
I chose the bar prep class the majority of my classmates and colleagues did not because of how I learn. Most insisted on an in-person option; I did an online-only course because I knew I worked best studying at my kitchen table isolated from others. The course I chose also had broken up the lectures into less than 30-minute chunks each as opposed to several hours’ worth of material at once, which made it easier for me to focus, pay attention, and feel confident about taking breaks to process things if I needed it (and give me good stopping points to eat and sleep).
When I took the bar in 2018, part of my decision to avoid BarBri was its lack of captions unless you asked for it as a disability-related accommodation. I come from the position that captions should be available to anyone – they help people who might struggle with auditory processing (I am a very visual learner), if English is not your first language, if you are unable to access a diagnosis for a neurodivergent condition, or if you have a hearing-related disability. The course I chose had captions, no questions asked. Reading along with the lecturers helped me absorb information better and was a game-changer.
Finding That Sweet Study Spot
When I would tell my peers that I would be studying at home rather than in the law library, I was immediately met with skeptical looks and judgment;, my friends’ faces almost invisibly saying “Haley, you’re going to fail that way.” But I knew I worked better at home as I did throughout most of law school. I found the law library’s lighting too distracting, the presence of other studiers exhausting and stressful. What makes a successful study spot for you might not work for someone else, that is perfectly fine.
For those who may have conditions marked by difficulties and differences in attention, pick somewhere that you know you might not be as distracted, or where you can reward yourself properly when you complete tasks on your time-table. Maybe it also requires having a stress reducing activity, a pet, or a place to rest nearby. If that happens to be at home, ignore the naysayers and set your routine.
Set a Routine!
For most of my neurotypical peers, settling into a bar prep rhythm and routine took at least a month and was a cause of stress for them: every day felt so similar! For my autistic brain, it was practically nirvana because I thrive off of predictability and routine. If I could eat the same foods every single day and have a set schedule most days, I would not complain. Bar study provided that: I was waking up at the same time, grabbing a protein shake to sip on during my morning lecture series, taking a break at lunchtime, do some practice questions, and I would end the day by exercising.
If you are someone who needs routine and can’t stick to it (hello, ADHD comrades), try to write something out that feels doable and keep it somewhere you will be reminded of what you need. Also, pick something fun to do at the end of each day if you can because the bar is hard work and your brain deserves a rest and reward.
Taking the Bar Exam
There are a lot of things I had no idea about the bar exam, especially if you are an in-person taker (I have heard lots of interesting stories about the virtual bar exams). If you’re going to be an in-person taker, make sure to make necessary arrangements for transportation, hotels, and other logistics well in advance so you aren’t stressing out too easily.
If you have a documented disability and need accommodations, be sure to get the ball rolling on that process early, possibly during 3L year or several months before studying because each jurisdiction’s process may be different and require assorted documentation. Also, keep in mind accommodations is not synonymous with extra time. You might want to request a private test-taking area (the convention center I took the bar in had like, 2000 or 3000 people in one giant room!), large print, or a variety of other things that can be helpful. Remember, accommodations are leveling the playing field, not giving you an unfair advantage – so don’t feel guilty for receiving the help you may need to succeed.
Get the Lay of the Land
I like scouting out new places before I have to spend time in them, especially if it’s somewhere like a convention center I’ll be stuck inside of for two whole days with thousands of people. If you are able to get to the testing site a day early and access it, try to walk around, see where the bathrooms are, where the “quiet” places might be, or how long it takes you to get there from your hotel. If the space is also super overwhelming, this can help you decide if you need earplugs, a drink, or something else within the exam rules to help ease stress and anxiety. Visiting the
Find Your Support Network
You already know law school was not a solo endeavor because you had the support of your family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and so many others. When you are taking the bar, some of the best support you’ll get is from people who love you (who ideally are not lawyers or law students – gotta have that reality check!). Talk to people you love and care about things other than the bar when you have the chance.
Something else I recommend if possible is finding a network of neurodivergent peers and friends to tap into as well. Your unique struggles with the bar don’t make you a failed soon-to-be-licensed lawyer, they are part of who you are. Having a neurodiverse squad of your own will make you feel less alone. You are far from alone, and you’ve got this! Go own the bar!
As one of the bar prep coordinators from my law school told us, repeat this mantra: “I will pass the bar exam. I have earned this opportunity. No excuses, no regrets.” Neurodiversity is not an excuse, but rather than understanding that you might not need to follow the yellow brick road of your peers and you are not less or a failure for it. You are different and deserve the same opportunities to become the best lawyer you can be once you tackle this final obstacle.