I bailed on taking the bar exam at the last minute -- twice

I finally got through law school but I'm having a problem with procrastination.

Published July 21, 2008 10:33AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Last summer I was supposed to be taking the bar exam, but I'm not. I procrastinate and then I have massive anxiety attack before the first day of the test.

My style throughout high school, college and law school was to leave everything until the last minute and then cram. This was fine in high school. I received strong grades (although, looking back, I think I could have done better) and got into a "good" college on the East Coast. College was a whole new set of problems. The eating disorder I'd developed in high school followed me there and the accompanying depression became much worse. I dropped classes, failed a few and, every year, had to take make up courses during the summer to stay on track to graduate on time. Somehow, I graduated.

After school, I slowly got better -- not normal, but functional. Each year seemed a little better than the one before. Although I'd always thought I might like to be a lawyer, I was terrified of going back to school, lest I fall into the same kind of depression again. But, after five years out, I made the decision to go to law school. Because I received a great LSAT score and sent accompanying letters from doctors and advisors who could attest to my problems in undergrad, my low GPA was overlooked and I was accepted into a high-ranking law school.

At law school, I stayed on track for most of the first semester. I studied, I participated in class and I actually found it kind of interesting. But, as soon as finals were looming, I stopped attending class and started procrastinating. My grades were acceptable. Throughout the rest of school, my grades remained low-average. During that first year, I started a new medication for depression, and suddenly, after 10 years of either desperate agony alternating with daily struggle, I felt better. It was amazing. With the medication and therapy, I can see the changes that have taken place over the last few years. I'm more confident, less isolated, more optimistic and I have more energy, which is huge.

But I have these habits that I can't seem to let go of, namely my procrastinating. I can waste time like nobody's business. I graduated from law school last May and signed up to take the bar exam in July. I took the five-week, three-hour-a-day prep course, paid for the computer software, booked a hotel room near the testing site and even stayed one night there. But, at 2 a.m. before the first day of the test, I decided that I wasn't prepared enough to take it. So I didn't. I was angry at myself, but I felt more relieved than anything else.

Then I did the exact same thing all over again -- in February. It's now summer and, once again, I'm registered to take the exam. What can I do to help me get through it -- or to at least help me get out the door and go to the testing site?

Not a Lawyer ... Yet?

Dear Not a Lawyer,

What you can do, to help you get through it, is work with a partner.

You need to buddy up with somebody. You need to find, either through acquaintance or through advertisement, a person who, like you, needs the accountability and structure of a shared commitment to take the bar exam. Then you make an agreement with that person that neither one of you will let the other back out. You walk in there together and walk out of there together, like firefighters.

But suppose you get the number of someone to partner up with and you say you will call but find yourself thinking you are not prepared to call this person, you don't know what to say, it will be awkward, what if the person says no, what if you let them down ... and so you put off contacting this partner until the bar exam date has passed.

So maybe you need a partner to help you get a partner. Maybe you need a regular life practice that helps you get done what needs to be done. So you get yourself a planner, maybe a FranklinCovey planner or a Day-Timer planner or whatever works for you. And you break this thing down into steps, the way you might break down a law problem. And you schedule all the steps in your planner. You write them in there on the days and times that they are to be accomplished.

But maybe you think you don't need a planner, or that they're too expensive or just silly, that you can make do with a little notebook. So you don't get the planner and you don't go through the systematic process of breaking down the finding of a partner into manageable, concrete tasks, each with its scheduled time. So just get yourself a planner, OK? Get one that you like. Get a nice one.

If you get a nice planner that you like, then you will not resist opening it up and looking in it and asking, OK, planner, what do I do today? Then, because you have already done all the thinking, because you have broken down the getting of a partner into manageable steps, and scheduled them, your planner will disgorge for you the list of things to do for that day. Among them may be, at 3:30 on Wednesday call that person about partnering up to take the bar exam. So on 3:30 Wednesday you call the person. You have written down in the planner exactly what you are going to say. So you say it. You carry out your mission.

How do we get into situations like this?

I remember the first day of school -- not the first day ever but the first day in one of the new towns after a succession of new towns, another first day being the strange one, hearing one's name pronounced strangely by a stranger, facing the faces, unwelcoming and dull. I remember fearing so intensely being left there in the classroom among strangers in the heat and the stupidity that I planted my feet against it; I pushed backward, not to go forward another step. I remember pushing backward against the hands of parents and strangers and then finally walking into that bland, deadly Protestant nightmare of elementary school in Florida in the early 1960s.

As kids we have no choice. We are forced to do everything. Later, we do have a choice. We can fail. We flirt with inaction. It becomes our lover and our friend, our savior. But then after many refusals have saved us from many indignities we begin to suffer the accumulation of our losses: Because we were saved the indignity of filling out a form and sitting in an anteroom and being gazed at with cold, dispassionate judgment, because we were spared the discomfort of competition with others, because we were allowed to hang back while others suffered the indignities of competition and judgment, we found ourselves one day without recommendations of any kind, without certificates, without awards, without credits, without a plan.

We flirted with inaction but it seduced us; torpor overtook us. We luxuriated in the time to think and observe as the strivers jogged on by, getting their grades, accumulating their credits, piling up their awards. We did not get the grades. We got something else. We got an eyeful of how it works. We got a good look at the circus.

But we got screwed. We did not get into Yale. We hitchhiked to Vermont.

We meet our needs in these ways. You are not just procrastinating. You are saving yourself from something. It may be that failure carries terrible consequences for you. So the procrastination is saving you. In a way, it is helping you. But it is helping you in a symbolic way, not a functional way. It works against us in the end. It helps, though, to recognize how procrastination serves a genuine need. That can make it easier to let go of.

So choose a partner and begin working together. Before the actual event, you might try some trial bookending of activities. That is, pick a task you don't want to do, like maybe making a certain phone call, or filling out a certain form. Call the person before you begin, and after you are done. If you stop early, call when you stop. If you find yourself not doing what you set out to do, wasting time, call and say you are wasting time. Just try this a few times. Set up a system. Then go take the bar together.

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