Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How to: Pass the bar while pregnant

This past July, I sat for the California bar exam, having just graduated from law school. I was particularly nervous taking this exam because I was also 31 weeks pregnant. I had intentionally timed the birth of my child so that I would spend most of my pregnancy as a law student, would take the exam during my third trimester, and then would have the baby between the bar exam and the receipt of the bar results. Everyone told me that I was crazy.

When conducting research (of course) beforehand, I found that there were very few resources for pregnant women taking the bar. Most of the available websites had women asking questions about it, or stating that they had passed/failed after taking it pregnant, but very few actually discussed the process. For the other crazy pregnant women out there who plan to take the bar, or for like-minded women who are considering it: here is my story.

1. IF POSSIBLE, CONSIDER THE TIMING

Granted, not everyone has a choice in the timing of their pregnancies. In my case, part of the baby/bar planning included reliance on biology and a lot of dumb luck. My husband and I wanted to have a baby some time after law school graduation to ensure that I would graduate on time, but before I was too far into my burgeoning legal career. I also didn’t want to study for the bar during my first trimester, when I knew I would probably feel the crummiest, or too close to my due date. Based on the calendar, I pinpointed four possible “conception” months that fit these criteria. We were extremely lucky and ended up getting pregnant in the first of the four months. This happened to be right at the start of my final 3L semester.

I also lucked out in that my first trimester was pretty tame. I felt constant nausea for the first three months, but never threw up (thank goodness). I found that being a 3L was quite conducive to first trimester pregnancy, in that I was only in class two to four hours per day, and was able to nap as needed when not studying… or studying… or studying. I also scheduled my classes so that I didn’t have any finals (seminar + trial advocacy + clinic). Spring semester passed without incident, and I graduated in May.

2. STUDY VERY HARD

I chose to take a commercial bar prep class to prepare for the exam. By the time the class started, I was in my second trimester. It was extremely tough to force myself to wake up every morning to head to bar class. Every day for two months, I knew I was faced with a full day of bar lecture/frantic note-taking, outlining, practice tests, essay-writing, and general stress. I felt sorry for my poor baby who was able to hear every word of the bar lectures in utero. All of the websites and pregnancy books recommended that expecting moms “take it easy” and “de-stress” during this time (yeah, right).

To get through the tedious two months of studying, I had to establish a solid routine. I went to the gym before the lectures four days a week. Although I was told not to run by my doctor, I got in thirty minutes of cardio and continued to lift free weights. Exercise gave me a burst of energy before the four-hour lectures and helped regulate my weight gain, which in turn kept me energized. I also packed a full day’s worth of healthy snacks so that I never got too hungry, which would have distracted me while studying. As the baby grew and my stomach shrank, I learned that I needed to eat a small snack every 1.5 to 2 hours or else I would be too distracted by my growling tummy to sit through practice essays.

The best thing I did during the pre-bar months was taking practice essays and full practice tests. One of my major concerns for bar day was that I would not be able to sit through the three-hour sessions because of my shrinking bladder. My prep course assigned a massive number of practice essays, and I approached each one as a “test-day” scenario. I set a timer and spent exactly one hour per essay, making sure that my bladder was empty and stomach was full at the start. I learned that I could push my bladder to a maximum of three hours, if need be, which was comforting.

The test studying was a marathon. Every day I worked from about 8 am to 9 pm with breaks for gym, meals, commute, doctor’s appointments, and occasional time spent with friends. After the first week or so, I settled into the grind, counting down each day until the days of the tests. I followed the study schedule given to me by my bar prep program, though I cleared several hours a day to focus on just memorizing rules until I was comfortable enough with the wording that I could pour them onto the page without having to waste time thinking about it. Everyone had different approaches to studying, but I did what worked best for me during law school, hoping it would help when I sat down to take the bar.

Near the end of the study period, I was sporting a pretty sizeable baby bump. My fellow stressed-out classmates gave me such looks of sympathy as the days and weeks progressed – several people stopped me to say that whenever they were overwhelmed, they just reminded themselves that I was doing the same thing, but pregnant. My response to people who asked me “how do you do it?” was that I had never studied for the bar un-pregnant, so I didn’t know anything different.

3. APPLY FOR TEST ACCOMMODATIONS

The best advice I can give to potential pregnant bar-takers is to apply for test accommodations early. The state bar (at least in California) requires a series of forms filled out by the test-taker, the tester’s doctor, and the tester’s law school in order to request accommodations. The forms have to be submitted to the accommodations department, then they make you wait for about a month, then you receive notice of their decision. I turned mine in right before their deadline, and I didn’t receive their decision until the week before the test. I called them every day for a full week. Bottom line, send it in early.

I was granted all of my requested accommodations, which were access to food and water, and seating near the bathroom. I debated asking for extra time to take the test, but was worried that I would be denied. Ultimately, I gambled on my bladder and did not ask for extra time. It ended up working out for me, but I am also a very fast typist, so I was able to finish my essays in the allotted time.

4. REMEMBER THAT IT IS JUST A TEST

By day one of the bar exam, I was 31 weeks pregnant and very large. At the start of test week, I started to have difficulty sleeping at night – partially due to the test anxiety and partially because of the pregnancy. After studying every day for two months, I was completely spent and exhausted and (honestly) terrified that I hadn’t done enough to prepare myself. I also felt that I could not possibly stuff another rule into my oversaturated brain if my life depended on it.

My best friend and I rented a hotel room for the three nights of the test. This ended up being an incredibly wise decision, because it allowed us to focus completely on the exam and avoid commute time and husband-related distractions. The only downside of this was that the entire hotel was occupied by nervous test-takers, so there was no escaping the constant reminder of the bar exam. We kept to ourselves to avoid the nervous energy of others, even taking the stairs to avoid being caught in elevators with people who would stress us out.

The first day of the exam was the worst, due to fear of the unknown. My friend and I woke up far too early, packed our bags, then headed downstairs to sit outside the locked doors of the test center with the other early birds. Once we made it in the doors, checked in, found our seats, and fired up the laptops, I was hit by a sudden wave of anxiety. My vision started to blur and I felt incredibly dizzy. I wanted to go to the restroom to splash water on my face before the exam began, but I had to stop on the way to lean against a table because I was worried I would pass out and fall down (I double-checked with my ob/gyn at lunch to make sure I was physically OK to continue the test).

Fortunately, the feeling passed before the moderator finished reading the entrance instructions. I was able to focus on the first set of essays, and completed all three without needing to take a break. After the first day, the remainder of the testing sessions passed without incident. In each section, I experienced exhilarating moments where I knew exactly what was being asked and was able to articulate it flawlessly. In each section, I also experienced stomach-dropping moments of panic where I didn’t recognize the issue being tested, didn’t remember the rule, or questioned my approach to the question or topic. Each day I left, sure that I had failed at least one part of the test.

5. TRY NOT TO OBSESS WHILE WAITING FOR RESULTS

Ultimately, I survived the eighteen hours of testing. I focused on doing my best, writing everything I knew, filling the test time, and not dwelling on the sections that had already passed. After that, it was all up to the graders.

The four months waiting for results are extremely difficult for every test-taker. During the first week after the exam, I remembered the essay questions but could not remember a word I had written, which led to heart-stopping panic that I had left out something crucial, or had missed the point of the essay altogether. This passed after about a week. Fortunately, my little boy was born about two months after the exam, which helped the remaining grading time pass quickly. In November, he sat on my lap while I checked my results (I swear my heart stopped for a second while the website loaded), and I learned that I had passed. The first time.

For those of you thinking about taking the bar pregnant: it’s extremely tough but doable. For those of you taking the bar pregnant: good luck!

13 comments:

  1. I am so happy to read your blog. I am actually thinking about doing this. I am going to take the Feb 2013 bar, and I am thinking about ttc in October (my husband and I will have been married one year). It is not so much that I am just READY to have a baby, but I am 33 and I figure if I wait until I am "ready," I will never have it. Plus, I somehow believe it will make me more focused on what is important, and not go nuts over the test...because that is all it is. I feel like it would keep things in perspective.

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  2. Thanks SO much for writing this. My husband and I are actually considering doing the same thing as you. I'll be taking the July 2013 bar in SC and if we conceived in March, I'd be four months pregnant. I'd find out the results in October, seven months pregnant. Its scary and I very much appreciate learning of your experience!!

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  3. You have an amazing work ethic and drive! Very admirable. I want to take the July 2015 exam in Florida, but I will be 35 weeks pregnant. I am concerned about my comfort level, energy level, and bladder issues. I also fear my back will not be able to withstand sitting still all day long.

    Do you think that I should hold off? Where do you work now? You are so talented. Which commercial bar prep did you use? I used Barbri in Ohio 10 years ago and it helped me pass.

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    1. Hey, I totally forgot about this blog! As a quick update, I'm now currently a third-year associate, employed in a small- to mid-sized civil defense firm. I have a second child now, all of which hopefully explains my complete lack of follow-up posts :) Just to reiterate, as long as your doctor is on board and you are relative low-risk, it's completely doable. Just make sure to practice in test-like conditions, and listen to your body if it is telling you to slow down. I used Barbri, but I know friends who had good results with other equivalent comprehensive commercial bar prep programs.

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  4. I am in this same situation. I CERTAINLY did not plan it, however, I (now) think this was the best timing for me. I has put EVERYTHING into perspective. We take a bar class during our final semester and I'll be taking a commercial bar class. I already work and go to law school, so I know how to juggle two very important things. Thanks for your confirmation on this.

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  5. I love this blog so much!!! It really helped me this summer as I prepared for the Florida bar. I sat for the exam at 35 weeks pregnant. I definitely stressed tremendously because I practice full time in Ohio and have other children. Also I graduated law school in 2004 and the vast majority of the material was a distant memory.

    Fortunately, I passed. You said so many helpful things that really helped--such as applying for accommodations and doing so early. Also doing the practice essays and MC questions were most helpful for me.

    Thank u again and kudos to u in a major way!

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    1. I'm just curious if you were granted accommodations in FL? I've talked to the MD Board and they said, "There will be plenty of bathrooms available to you." so in other words no accommodations. I'll be 31 weeks by then so I can only guess how often I will need to eat and use the restroom. Overall, I'm second-guessing this decision to sit for July now.

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  7. Woah! Thanks for sharing this post! I am also 5 months pregnant and I am crazily doing my Bar Exam Prep, but I need to ask if there is any age limit for this exam because my delivery date and the exam date falls in the same month, I hope they don’t clash!

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