I want to discuss a very important issue for those of you who are either considering or planning to self study for the bar exam. My belief is that this is THE most important factor in determining whether self study is right for you. Because the truth is that it's not right for everyone. You need to take an honest look at yourself and determine whether the following factor would keep you from successfully completing a self study program.
That factor is motivation and discipline. The reason why I lump these two qualities together is that I believe they work together as one. They are two sides to the same coin, as it were. If you are highly motivated to pass the bar, you will make yourself do what needs to be done to pass it (i.e., discipline). I once heard the statement: "Discipline is remembering what you want." That always stuck with me because I think it is a near perfect definition of discipline. A lot of times we tend to think of discipline abstractly. A disciplined person is someone who does everything perfectly and never procrastinates. Perhaps they even enjoy being disciplined for its own sake. I don't know if that perception is accurate.
If you think of discipline simply as remembering what you want, you have a deeper reason for making disciplined choices. If I want to lose weight and be healthy, I remember that goal when making eating choices. It's a lot easier to choose carrot sticks over cake when you recognize that a smaller pant size is on the other side of that decision, and you're not just depriving yourself for kicks. Likewise, if you have a strong desire to pass the bar exam (and not everyone does), it will help tremendously when doing a self study program. You will wake up and think of your tasks for the day as being one step closer to passing that exam and ...... (getting that job, attaining the prestige of being a lawyer, proving the self study nay-sayers wrong......you fill in the blank). You don't want to be waking up every day dreading the process.
Motivation and discipline are obviously important for any bar examinee, not just self studiers. But it is crucial for self studiers. Why? Because you aren't taking a commercial prep class. You don't have that environment to go to every day. You won't have the instructors, the room full of classmates. For all my criticism of commercial prep courses, this is the one thing they have going for them. And in my opinion, if you do choose to pay the thousands to take one of their programs, this is really what you're paying for. If you're in their program, you and probably all your friends are going to be together almost every day. You're going to be listening to the same things, you are going to be doing the same work (in general), you are going to have each other.
Not to be dismal, but if you self study, you may not know any other person who is also self studying. This is a big challenge for a number of reasons.
First, you will probably have to face the negativity of others when they find out you are going to self study. They will probably think you all manner of things: foolish, reckless, stupid. (Although there will be others who are jealous of your courage to do what they are too scared to do themselves.)
Second, self study can get lonely! Not only have you pretty much had to say goodbye to your friends, family and social life for a few months, but now you won't even be with your law school friends, either. I mean, studying is hard enough as it is, you at least want to commiserate, right? And when you are around your friends who take a commercial program, they are going to be on a different schedule than you. When there are hundreds of them, and only one of you, it's hard not to get intimidated by what they're doing and wonder if you should be doing the same thing.
Lastly - and this is the big one - if you hit the wall or get in a rut, no one is going to be there to put you back on track. You won't be able to go to class the next day and feel inspired or motivated externally by others. You have to find it within yourself to get through the hard times. You have to make yourself write essays when you don't want to. You have to get through those MBEs every day. If you can't do this, you can find yourself in a bad situation. You might lose an entire week or more. If you take a class, all you have to do is show up the next day and they will either scare or motivate you into shaking the dirt off your boots and getting going again. But if you self study, you have to have the fortitude to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make things happen.
You might relate to me. I was smart (which is why I got into law school) and therefore everything came easy to me in school. I rarely studied and always got straight As. Although it sure was nice for a very long time, I never developed the discipline to study. Even in law school I pretty much skated by. In general I gave up the As, but I got to keep my abysmal study habits. I crunched during finals, and graduated with a solid B average. But I hated studying, HATED it! I didn't want to work hard. I never had to before. But as we all know, you can't pass the bar without doing the work. It's just not possible (although I think I've come up with the best program for doing as little work as possible!).
So when I studied the first time around and found out I was pregnant, I got totally off track. If I had been in a commercial program, I probably would have re-focused back to the task at hand a lot sooner. I may have been able to push through the physical challenges a little better. Would I have passed? Who can say for sure. The second time around, though, I was a different person. I didn't have the pregnancy challenge this time, but now I had a toddler and less time to study. The big thing for me was the humiliation of failing the first time. It still bothers me. I was petrified of failing again. I couldn't even imagine how I would have dealt with it (and I did try to have a plan just in case). Also, I wanted to just be done with it. I didn't want it hanging over my head. I was tired of my friends saying I was a lawyer and having to correct them that I still have to pass the bar. I didn't like having that loose end yet to tie up. I didn't want my family to have to go through another study attempt and all the sacrifices that required of them. I just wanted it done. So I was really motivated.
Although the motivation was there, the discipline still had to be developed. It's one thing to want to study, it's another to teach yourself how to sit at a desk and stay there until you get your designated work accomplished. It took some practice to learn how to get the books out and get started right away. But it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Once I had my reason for being there and doing the work, it was easier to get going. And once I got going, it was easy to stay going. After I did one day, I knew I could do it another day. And another day. I gained momentum and was really proud of myself for being disciplined. It's like when people tell you that they enjoy working out. It becomes fulfilling in and of itself. I loved it when at the end of the day I could mark down that I had done 3 practice essays. It felt good and I wanted that feeling again the next day.
So think about it. Do you have sufficient motivation and discipline to get through this enormous task on your own? What's your reason? Is there a fire in your belly to slay this beast? You must be able to draw upon that motivation when things get really, really hard. If you do determine that you have it in you to go the self study route, there are things you can do to help alleviate that isolation I talked about.
Even those who are motivated and disciplined can use a boost. Having a game plan for pushing through those really tough times is a smart idea. Unfortunately, in bar exam world, there aren't a lot of plays to be had. One approach is to give yourself a break to refresh. Another is to stalk bar exam blogs like this one for encouragement. The approach I want to discuss at present is finding/building a network of other self studiers.
The first point of business is finding those people. When I re-studied for the exam last year, I knew of classmates who graduated with me who were also re-taking the exam. It only takes a quick glance at their social on bar exam results day to know if they passed or not. I took a calculated risk in messaging one of these friends to inquire if they were going to be sitting for the following administration of the exam. I was really nervous about doing this, because they were in the midst of dealing with the disappointing results. But as I explained that I had to take the exam again too, and wondered if we might support each other and help each other through the process, I think it came across okay. I received a welcome response, as well as information about other classmates who were in our same position. So I gathered us together via email.
The second point of business is turning your network of self studiers into a common resource. Each person is going to have their own needs - their own strengths and weaknesses, their own focus for the exam. Some may be first-timers, some repeaters. Some will be studying full time, some will be working full time. Some may enjoy the school library, some may be home-studiers. Some may have taken a commercial class before, some may be employing a different self study program than you. The key is not to focus on these differences. You don't have to be all doing the same thing to support each other. What you really need is a small group of people to check in on you, to keep you accountable. You need people to email when you're struggling through something and need help.
My own group consisted of 5 people, including myself. I'm pretty sure everyone except me had taken BarBri before. All of us were repeaters. I think all of us had jobs or other full time responsibilities that kept us from studying full time. My intent was for us to get together at least once a week (Saturday or Sunday). For the first meeting, I wanted everyone to bring their past exams so we could compare and learn from our mistakes. Also at this first meeting, each of us was to share our past study experience: what classes and materials we tried, what we thought of them, etc. That way others could benefit from our recommendations if they were considering trying something we already had. After this first meeting, I intended to have us do a 3 hour practice exam at our weekly meetings; the idea being that we each time we rotate through Performance Tests, Essays, and MBEs, thereby giving us practice under simulated conditions.
It was like herding cats. It never worked out how I intended it to. Not one meeting was fully attended, and I quickly realized after a short period of time that the weekly meeting idea wouldn't work with my friends. There was always at least one person who couldn't make it for some reason or other. And people showed up late. And we talked.
I still think it's a great idea and would recommend it to those of you who can get a committed group of people together. For whatever reason our group didn't work as I imagined. I think it makes a big difference if you have a group of first timers who are studying full time without family or work responsibilities. That said, my little group was good in other ways. We found that our email group was a great way to communicate throughout the week. If we had a question or issue, we'd email the group or a friend in the group. If one person was looking for audio lectures on Crim Law, someone else in the group always seemed to have it and would email the file. If we were looking for an outline or mnemonics, someone would share theirs. But the biggest help of having this group was merely having a group. Being part of a group where everyone is facing the same challenge and working to succeed. We had a sense of community and knowing we weren't alone, even if we didn't see each other. We had a number of people we could call or email to encourage us when we were frustrated. We all understood each other's pain. Even seeing the emails pass back and forth was a constant reminder of the approaching bar exam and that we needed to continue making progress. This was the biggest benefit to having the group. It helped me keep motivated and disciplined. It helped with feelings of isolation. It also helped knowing that others, like me, were self studying, even though the vast majority of people were taking a commercial prep class.
So to encourage you in building your network, try to get the word out that you are self studying for the exam, or join my community over at Facebook. See if you can find friends of friends from classes before or after you who are in the same position. Decide amongst your group what role you want it to play. Do you want to have a structured practice exam every week? Do you just want to share materials? Let it serve the members of the group.
You can also get daily motivational and inspirational posts on my Instagram to keep a positive and encouraging flow of energy coming to you through your study process.