I’ve taken two Bar Exams in my life and both were miserable experiences. Each of them featured long periods of intensive studying, and equally long periods of intensive procrastination.
In July 2010, Farah and I had just moved back to Austin from NYC, and I spent most of that summer doing two things: working towards the Texas Bar Exam, or watching the World Cup while feeling guilty about not studying.
Here’s the thing about Bar Exams, and I don’t mean to sound bigheaded, but the exam itself is not a difficult test. It doesn’t require intellectual thought, or advanced writing skills. You don’t need a law degree to take it. It’s a memory test. That’s pretty much it. And maybe also a test of your ability to manage time and handle stress. But I think anyone could pass it if they really wanted to.
The most difficult aspect is in disciplining yourself to reading and re-reading extremely boring details, for several hours, every day, for 12 weeks. That’s the real challenge.
How can I describe the monotony of Bar Exam study? Well, imagine if you were forced to read all the Game of Thrones books, and that you knew you would be tested on something that might just be mentioned on one page. That’s all five of the books and thousands of pages. I should note that, unlike Farah and many of my friends, I’ve never read any of the George R.R. Martin books, but I have watched the TV show, and I know from talking with Farah and my friends, how boring and overly detailed the books are. So I think it’s a workable analogy.
But reading it is one thing. Finding a way to keep those thousands of pages of details in your head is another matter. Conceptually it’s not hard. Everyone can read. You just need to figure out a way to retain all that information, so that you can spew it out on the day of test.
Here’s what I do. I make up mnemonics for every single detail that could be tested. A mnemonic is a rhyme, abbreviation, or mental association that helps you remember something. For me it’s usually a word or phrase that triggers an image and from there, I can remember the detail.
For example, for a question about how title to land can be acquired through the doctrine of adverse possession, I would think about how Pink Floyd acquired a Roman amphitheater in Pompeii for a documentary film, hence ‘ECHOES’. The possession must be:
Open and notorious
Entry and actual possession
Makes sense right?
To extend my fictional analogy, if I was being tested on the Game of Thrones books, (which will never happen, because a) they are probably more boring than property law textbooks, and b) I don’t read books), then perhaps there would be a question about the Sand Snakes, the eight bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell. So how would I remember their names? Well sand snakes look like spaghetti, and I would imagine that the patron saint of pasta would be ST NOODLE. Thus:
That’s how my brain works. It’s just a big warehouse capable of storing useless information. I actually find it harder to forget things.
So for me, getting ready for a Bar Exam is just creating hundreds and hundreds of these mnemonics. Then in the 72 hours or so before the exam, I sit down and file each one away in a box in my warehouse brain. Then I create mnemonics for every box that holds a mnemonic, and so on until I am left with one long ridiculous sentence about pasta and Pink Floyd that represents everything in the Bar Exam.
It’s a pretty stressful way to study though. I’m not really enjoying the process, I’m just ingesting the facts like someone in a hot dog eating contest. And then on the day of the exam I regurgitate it all out on the page. Yeah, it’s horrible.
Anyway, I thought that the Bar Exam it would be easier second time around but it wasn’t. If anything it was harder. I thought that either I would remember some of the things I studied for the New York exam in 2005, or that my 5 years of legal experience would help me. But I’d forgot everything I learned the first time within about two days of the exam, and I found that having actual courtroom experience was often a hindrance.
For example, sometimes there might be a question about whether or not a judge will admit something into evidence. Having been in a court, I want to answer the question by saying “well it depends on the type of objection being made, or it depends if the judge is in a good mood”. But that’s not the answer they are looking for.
So there were no short cuts in the studying. I just had to plough through it all like everyone else. And then there is inevitably a moment, the day before the exam, where I just think that if only I had one more day of study, I might be ok. And specifically, in July of 2010, in those last 24 hours before the exam, all I could think about was, “I shouldn’t have spent so much time watching the 2010 World Cup”.
At this point in the chapter, I’m going to talk about the World Cup, and I’ll come back to the Bar Exam stuff later, because it’s actually stressing me out writing about how stressed out I was. Basically I need to procrastinate.
Ok. So I love the World Cup in the same way that some weird people love Christmas. The European Championships are a close second. I get obsessed with it. When it happens, my life revolves around it.
Some of my earliest memories are of watching the World Cup. Since 1982, I can instantly remember where and what I was doing during every World Cup and every European Championship. I can remember the emotions I felt watching all of those tournaments, and I can remember why I felt them. These are the bookmarks of my story. These are the bullet points that trigger an image and from there, I can remember the detail. They are the mnemonics for my life. Thus:
World Cup 1982
In 1982, I was 6 years old and I remember being allowed to stay up to watch Scotland v Brazil with my Dad and all his friends. In those days, Scotland always qualified for the World Cup. I remember the stench of the overflowing ashtrays and the sight of dozens of cans of Tennent’s Lager (with pictures of scantily clad women on the side). Scotland scored first against Brazil. I was cheering but my Dad and his friends quickly decided that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. They said that the goal would just make Brazil angry. But I continued to celebrate while my Dad’s friends scowled at me. Scotland went on to lose 4-1. Everyone said it was my fault.
We had just moved to a new house and new school in Barrhead. I remember watching France and Michel Platini come from behind to beat Portugal in extra time on a tiny black and white TV, and thinking it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
World Cup 1986
Gordon Strachan scored against West Germany. Stevie Nicol missed a sitter against Uruguay. After that our family were to Luing, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland, for our summer holiday. But the house we stayed in didn’t have a functional TV. The only thing I remember about that holiday was listening to the 1986 World Cup Final on the radio. I’ve still never seen it.
12 years old. I’d just finished my first year at a new school. Scotland didn’t qualify so I wasn’t that interested. I went to the cinema to see Crocodile Dundee 2 with my friend Jason on the day of the final and we missed one of the greatest goals ever by Marco Van Basten.
World Cup 1990
A teenager. We’d had our first family holiday in the town of Lucca the previous summer and I’d fallen in love with Italy and Italian football. Scotland lost to Costa Rica but then we beat Sweden. That was the last time I saw Scotland win a game in a World Cup. I videotaped every game that Italy played. I loved Mancini and Vialli and Baggio, and I cried when they lost the semi final on penalties.
This was a major championship in the middle of my Higher exams, so I had similar emotions of frustration / guilt as I did with the Texas Bar Exam. Scotland were there but we lost to Germany and Netherlands so we were out. Then Sweden beat England and I felt a bit better.
World Cup 1994
I’d finished first year at university and my mum, dad and brother went to Italy on holiday. I had nothing to do but drink beer, and gamble, and watch the World Cup in Glasgow and Aberdeen. I videotaped every game. Scotland didn’t qualify but Italy almost won it. I cried again when Baggio missed his penalty to lose the final. Not least because I had a tenner on Italy at 9-1 to win it.
World Cup 1998
I was living in Melbourne, Australia. I set up a World Cup cocktail bar in an Italian restaurant, but all the games were on in the middle of the night. Scotland lost to Brazil and Morocco, but I still wished I was there. France won it in Paris and most of my friends were there to experience it.
I was back in Edinburgh working at the Bank of Scotland. Kristy wasn’t really into soccer. Scotland didn’t qualify but Italy made it to the final. I watched the final in the Grassmarket with Jambo and Nelly. It was nice to be among friends again to see it. Italy lost again.
World Cup 2002
Kristy and I had just moved to Austin. The time zone difference for me meant the games were on in the middle of the night again. I watched most of the tournament with the sound down on the TV while Kristy slept. I was looking for jobs and we were sleeping on couches. Scotland didn’t qualify again, (I’ll stop saying that now – they haven’t qualified since 1998), and Italy got cheated out of it.
I was single in Austin and dating a girl from England. As a challenge to my own prejudices, I decided that I would try and support England for the first time. I watched their first game against France in Fado’s, surrounded by hundreds of English supporters. I tried. But I couldn’t do it. I impulsively cheered when France scored to win 2-1, and I nearly got beaten up.
World Cup 2006
30 years old. I was working in my first New York law firm and unable to see a lot of the games live during the day, so I would record them and try and stay away from the score until I got home. But inevitably I’d be on the subway home and see a guy in an Ecuador shirt crying and I’d know what had happened. I watched the final in Austin at a friend’s house. Italy finally won it and I cried again.
I was busy and working at a new law firm in NYC. I didn’t see as much of it as I’d like, but I watched Spain win the final in Brighton on the weekend of my cousin Rhona’s wedding.
World Cup 2010
Back in Austin. See above.
We watched the latter stages in a chateau in France with friends. Italy lost another final.
World Cup 2014
Nelly visited from Australia and we watched Germany dismantle Brazil 7-1 together in my new office.
Present day. Being my own boss, I have the luxury of being able to watch as much or as little as I want. I’ve been watching a lot.
Ok. Procrastination over. Back to 2010. After entering the World Pun-Off Competition in May 2010, I studied hard and eventually the week of the exam arrived.
The Austin location for the three-day exam was the Palmer Events Center, about 20 minutes walk from our house in Travis Heights. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea for me to walk home for lunch in the middle of day 2. It was 101F. It was not a good idea. By the time I walked back to the Events Center from lunch I was exhausted. I remember reading some of the questions that afternoon, and then immediately forgetting what I’d read because my head was frazzled. But I got through it.
The results of the exam were not released until November. That was a nerve-racking afternoon. I’m sure I was doing exactly the same thing as hundreds of other people that day, which was just sitting staring at the same page on the State Bar website and hitting ‘refresh’ every 5 seconds.
I was informed that at some point on that day, the page would change and there would just be a list of names, in alphabetical order, of those who had passed. If your name is on the list, you’ve passed. If you’re name is not on the list, well, you’ve failed.
When the list finally appears, I figured that I had a choice: do I immediately search the page for the word ‘Reid’, or do I drag it out, as if I was gradually opening your eyes at a surprise, and slowly scroll down through all of the names until I get to ‘R’?
Eventually the page went live, I got up, I poured myself a whisky, and I went for the slow, painful, scrolling option. And. Eventually. I. Saw. That. My. Name. Was. There.
My first thought was ‘Thank fuck for that’. My second thought was that I could probably have watched more of the World Cup.
It’s been six years now since the Texas Bar Exam, and sadly I can still remember some of the details. Ironically, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones on TV for about the same length of time, and I’ve not got a fucking clue who anyone is.