Throwback Thursday: Studying for the New York bar exam, Summer 1985

If this gives you chills, then you're probably a lawyer! (Photo of BarBri bar review book: DY, 2014)

If this gives you chills, then you’re probably a lawyer! (Photo of BarBri bar review book: DY, 2014)

During any given summer, thousands of newly-minted law school graduates are reaping the rewards of their toil with one final “gift” of a test: The bar examination of the state in which they intend to practice. With a few exceptions, one’s ability to practice law in a given state is dependent upon passing a grueling two or three day examination, consisting of batteries of brain-frying multiple-choice questions and essay questions that pose factual scenarios densely packed with legal issues to be analyzed.

To prepare for the bar exam, which most people take during the summer, one typically signs up for a bar review course. This is a crash course that features over a month of lectures and practice exam questions, interspersed with hours of studying legal rules and principles. Most bar review courses start right after graduation season and finish a few weeks before the bar exam itself, with the remaining time spent drilling and memorizing.

Every summer I encounter law students lugging around the thick paperbound law summaries published by bar review courses. As the weeks go by, their faces look more drawn and tired. Many of the men stop shaving and even the more fashion conscious women trudge around in sweatpants. They make for a pretty motley crew by the time exam week hits.

I remember that time oh-so-well. Twenty-nine summers ago, I was studying for the New York bar exam, reputed to be one of the toughest in the nation. The biggest challenge in studying for the NY exam was the vast number of legal subjects potentially covered on it. We had to stuff a lot of law into our heads and hope that it remained there at least through the two days of the actual test. For people like me, who assiduously took classes of intrinsic interest rather than courses that tracked the bar exam subjects, there was added misery in tackling subjects avoided during law school.

Furthermore, earlier that year, I had accepted an offer to work for The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. I would be handling appellate-level criminal cases, which meant that the areas of law I needed to feel comfortable with boiled down to a handful of subjects. My motivation to learn, say, the rules of New York gift & estate taxation, was practically nil. (Especially with the salary I’d be earning and the people I’d be representing, neither I nor my future clients had much use for the subject.)

I spent the first few weeks dutifully going to the bar review lectures and trying to study each day, but I found the whole deal to be quite excruciating and my attention span wandered. As the weeks ticked down, however, I came to grips with the fact that I didn’t want to take this exam over again, so I’d best buckle down and give it my all. That I did. During the weeks preceding the exam, I basically camped out in the law clinic offices at NYU, where I had spent so much time in my final year of law school.

Of course, I also spent hours on the phone with law school classmates, sharing supposed insights on how to prepare for the exam, as well as gallows humor about our chances of passing. Many of my best friends from NYU were going to other states to practice, so I ran up a much higher phone bill than was prudent for a soon-to-be public interest lawyer.

I was assigned to take the exam in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan. By then I had moved out of NYU housing and was sharing an apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t want to risk a subway delay, so I rented a room at the Vanderbilt YMCA, a manageable walk from the hotel.

The exam itself was every bit as challenging as I had imagined. My head was spinning throughout the two-day test, and when I finished, I honestly had no clear idea of whether I had passed or not. (One of the essay questions was about New York gift & estate taxation, and had I not spent an hour the night before with a one-page summary prepared by one of my law school classmates, I probably would’ve sat there in a stupor.) But I didn’t feel horrible about it, so I figured my chances were okay.

After the exam, I celebrated by going to Barnes & Noble and buying two books, the titles of which I recall to this day: William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years (the journalist’s account of being in 1930s Nazi Germany) and Tom Clancy’s first thriller, The Hunt for Red October. I treated myself to an extra night at the YMCA to read my new books in solitude. In the weeks that followed the bar exam, I was basically in a haze. Thank goodness I had that time to recoup before reporting for duty at Legal Aid after Labor Day.


In November I learned that I had passed the bar exam! It was good news all around in my office; all 12 or so Legal Aid colleagues who sat for the exam that summer also passed. I called the elementary school in Indiana where my mom taught kindergarten, and they gave her the good news over the intercom.

I celebrated by going to Barnes & Noble and buying another book, Mark Girouard’s Cities & People, a beautiful volume about urban social and architectural history — and a perfect complement to the love affair I was experiencing with New York City as a broke-but-happy Legal Aid lawyer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: