The Pain of Birthing a Shark

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

To practice law in New York, you have to be licensed by the State. To get that license, among others, you have to pass a competency test – the Notorious New York State Bar Exam – among the top 5 most evil and harsh professional examinations in the nation.

It was 18 years ago this week that I sat for the New York State Bar Examination. Fortunately, it was the one and ONLY time I ever had to sit for that exam. That seating came at the culmination of seven years of college and graduate school; fighting hard to rise to the top of the professional pool, followed by seven of the most intensive weeks of study imaginable. Everything I ever dreamed of and worked for rested on the outcome. Then, just as suddenly, it was over.

Recently in the hotel I was staying in, a Bar Review Course was holding classes. Repeatedly, I smiled as I listened to wanna-be’s in the elevator arguing the nuances of test taking and the rule against perpetuities. Oy, the harshness and pain endured by the Esquires of tomorrow. It was all coming back to me as though it was yesterday despite having occurred in the previous century.

Within days of graduating from Law School, the Bar Review course started. Four hours of class time and 8-10 hours of homework, per day, each day, seven days a week, until a week before the Bar Exam. I remember having no air conditioning and suffering through a miserable Syracuse summer. Plopped at the kitchen table in front of a small circular fan, I followed the guidelines of the course like a religion, and with boot camp rigidity, I stuck to their schedule and trusted in them to get me through it. If not for the two hours of lap swimming I did each day, I think I would have exploded from the stress.

Ashamedly, I do confess that I feel the Bar exam for me was an easier experience than for most. It was not because of some special brilliance nor because I am a whiz at test taking; to the opposite in fact. Historically, I did not do well on standardized tests and was paranoid about how I would handle that problem when 60% of the Bar Exam in just that. My doctor, bless his soul, at the time prescribed Inderal; a beta blocker. He felt that in reducing the impact of adrenaline, it would cut my stress and assist me focusing. Whether it did or not, I survived the test.

The other reason I had it easier was because of a problem I noticed at the start of the summer. If I had 3 hours to do 100 sample questions, I would burn through them with at least 20-30 minutes remaining. As I scored the tests, I noticed that my error rates climbed as I moved through the test. I started experimenting and mandating myself to doing no more than 34 questions an hour. Should I finish early, I would get up, stretch, suck a butt, and do whatever, until the start of the next hour. Doing so slowed me down and helped immensely. I survived the test.

What made all that interesting was that during the actual exam, I religiously stuck to my routine and found myself with 15 minutes or so left in each hour; each day of the exam. Not wanting to sit there and go insane, I would trust my system, get up, go outside into the sun, suck a butt, wait for the top of the hour to come up, and then go back in and continue. Apparently that kind of behavior is suspicious to proctors who routinely began to follow me outside and monitor me. Laying on my back on the lawn with my eyes closed must have confused the hell out of them.

Just as it is now; then, three days before the Bar exam, I was given the best piece of advice ever and one I have shared as often as I can. Being 3 days before the test, I was told to stop studying. I was told that there was nothing more I was going to learn and that I should instead focus on relaxing and calming myself down. The single most important test of my entire life was three days away and my then mentor tells me I should just quit studying? I survived the test.

The test is given at only 3 or 4 locations throughout the State. Those unfortunate enough to be downstate will find themselves seated with several thousand other test takers at the Javitz Center. In this part of the State, my test was given at Amherst. Though a couple thousand took the test, we were in large lecture halls of only a few hundred.

I am not sure if you can imagine what it is like to be taking the most important test of your life in a room surrounded with 2 or 3 hundred totally stressed out strangers. The coughing, paper shuffling, sniffing, breathing, and yes … vomiting, magnifies exponentially when you obsess over such things. Making it worse is that on breaks, you sit with your friends, listen to their answers they gave, and realize instantly that either they are complete idiots … or you are. You have to wait until after Columbus Day to find out.

Three days prior to the test, the wife and I loaded up and headed out to Amherst. We did not stay anywhere near the university and definitely not at the hotel with other test takers. The last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by anybody else who might be stressed or whacked out. Also, I did not want anybody around in case I started freaking out. I lounged at the pool, occasionally read my flash cards, and tried to stay focused on the test. No smoking, no drinking, no partying had started to take a toll. I was a grouchy nasty mess. During the drive out, a bee flew into the car and stung me on the shoulder. Being as superstitious as I am, I totally obsessed whether this was a good omen or not.

The exam came and went. In my group, I am proud to say I was the first one out the door. Though others may have scored higher, I survived the test; which was the goal. The wife and I took the long way home … via Niagara Falls … passing Niagara Falls International Airport and the Bit O’ Paris Motel (for some reason, the funniest things we ever saw) and headed back to Syracuse.

The next morning, we were on a plane to Negril, Jamaica for two weeks of sun and relaxation. I remember very little after that.

Here I am eighteen years later, and my stomach still churns at the thought of taking that test. For me, the only thing worse than sitting for the New York State Bar Exam … is not.

Back to the MarkBlum Report

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