Returning to the Law After Time Away

You graduate from law school then take the bar. Straightforward, right? Well, maybe for many people, but certainly not for all of us! In my case, I graduated from law school with a baby on the way – my first – which meant I was planning to become both a lawyer and a mother in the same year! Soon, however, medical complications caused me to reevaluate my priorities. Fortunately, I had my son, then later a daughter. But by the time things settled down and my children were old enough for me to set aside consistent times to study, five years had whizzed by. Although I was excited to return to my legal career, facing the bar felt like a huge challenge! Would I even remember anything? I was concerned that since I had gotten out of the academic mentality, it would be an epic struggle to get myself back to a place where I could successfully memorize information and test. I was also worried about how studying would impact my family life, and I feared missing out on special moments in my kids' lives.

If you are in a similar situation, you may find yourself asking whether achieving your professional aspirations is even possible. Let me assure you that you absolutely can return to the law, meet the challenge of the bar exam, and begin your career as a lawyer or continue it in a new jurisdiction. Using the BarMax program, I was able to pass the bar even after a five-year gap and I firmly believe that you, and indeed anyone, can do the same.

I. Use Your Existing Knowledge, Skills, and Accomplishments

It is important to remember when studying for the bar exam that you bring all of your existing knowledge, skills, and accomplishments to the table. After a break from law school or legal work, it's natural to feel less confident in your ability to recall and apply legal concepts correctly. All of your experience, however, helps prepare you to be a more competent, well-rounded applicant and lawyer. You may need to update your knowledge, but you do not have to start from scratch.

A. Update, Rather than Relearn, Legal Concepts

You already speak the “language” of the law. You haven’t lost the hard-earned understanding you gained back in law school! Now, you can build on the understanding you already have and fit the new pieces of the law into place. Mentally, it may seem difficult to bring yourself back to good academic habits, but this is much easier than what you did in your 1L year while working to gain your first bits of legal understanding!

The same concept applies if you are looking to get licensed in a new jurisdiction. You may be concerned about learning new topics and skills not covered in the bar exam for the jurisdiction where you were originally licensed. It should reassure you that the general principles of most bar-tested law have remained unchanged for decades!

Depending on the particulars of your situation, you may also find yourself facing new technologies on the bar exam. Don’t be intimidated! Recent law students may be familiar with using laptops for their exams, but remember: the technology was new to everyone at one point. Your state bar will allow a practice period when you can deliberately expose yourself to the new technology before the exam in order to gain the familiarity you need.

But what if you have been away from the law for longer than just a few years? While writing this article, I was able to speak with Philip,* a former BarMax student with an unusual story. Philip had been out of law school for over 40 years, had taken his other two bar exams decades earlier, and had not practiced law daily for over 20 years when he set out to pass the bar exam in a new jurisdiction. He didn't let the new technology slow him down, but found ways to use the technology that worked for him. And Philip succeeded, passing the bar in his new jurisdiction on his first try.

Remember that when studying for the bar, you bring all of your existing knowledge, skills, and accomplishments to the table.

B. Life Experiences Give You Superior Time Management Skills

If you're returning to legal studies or practice after a few years away, you may have added responsibilities to juggle, such as a full-time job, family obligations, or other commitments. For many people, this balancing act is the hardest part of bar prep. Finding time to study for the bar exam can be a challenge, and you'll need to develop effective time management strategies to stay on track. But here's the good news: you likely already have these skills!

In my case, I came to realize that, although my life involved more responsibilities, I had also learned additional time management skills since becoming a parent. My ability to manage my responsibilities, avoid procrastination, and move in the direction of my goals was in an entirely different class than it was in law school. I prioritized the bar exam in the short term, knowing it was best for myself and for my family in the long term. I determined that it was better to sacrifice the time, even though that meant I sometimes “missed out” on personal things, for two reasons. First, this was a professional goal that was truly meaningful to me, and I knew I wanted to become a lawyer. Secondly, my hope was that by dedicating as much time as possible while studying, I could pass the bar immediately rather than having to set aside even more time and resources by taking the exam again.

II. Face the Challenge of Passing the Bar

It is important to keep in mind that the bar exam is just one hurdle on the way to your professional goals – not a way of life! The long-term reward more than justifies short-term sacrifice. Additionally, I found it helped to picture bringing the person I am now to the test, rather than trying to return to who I was five years ago.

"The long-term reward more than justifies the short-term sacrifice."

A. Trust Yourself to Overcome Hurdles


Preparation can fuel your confidence! If you tend towards exam anxiety, even a bit of overpreparation can help you assure yourself that you have prepared enough.

To succeed on the bar exam, Philip relied extensively on BarMax's real practice questions, not just reviewing the correct answer but taking the time to understand why the wrong answers were wrong. Further, he notes, "I did as many of the written essays that I could, selecting from different topics [and] outlining the response on many of them." After overcoming medical issues and other potential setbacks, Philip believes the path to success is to "set your eyes on the goal and chop the wood in front of you – i.e., plow through it each day." There truly is no substitute for putting in the time.

Managing Stress

It's essential to manage stress and anxiety during the bar exam preparation process to avoid panic and ensure that you perform at your best on test day. Strategies of self-care can go a long way to making sure that exam anxiety does not negatively impact your performance. This includes sleeping, eating right, and appropriate exercise — for all of us! Some students also find help in meditation, prayer, therapy, or medication. Simple mantras or personal reminders can help too. Personally, I felt unprepared for the testing aspect of the bar exam simply because I had been completely removed from any kind of academic studying and testing for five years. One of my biggest mental hurdles was proving to myself that I could still perform academically. After five years, I lacked confidence in my abilities. Whatever your mental hurdle, try using these two mantras – or develop your own – to remind yourself that you are capable:

  • You know you can handle life beyond the bar exam – because you already have!
  • You already have the necessary academic skills because you have already graduated law school.

One thing that really worked for me was that BarMax offered the MPRE course for free. I used that study program to feel confident that passing the bar was actually possible before I invested the money in a bar preparation program. In the end, I was able to use the MPRE as a chance to prove to myself that I could still study, take a test, and pass. 

B. Prepare for Application Complications

Beyond the bar exam itself, the application process for bar admission can be a significant hurdle to returning to the law. More "seasoned" applicants have more years or even decades of life to account for in their application packets (e.g., every state where you have had a driver's license, all your educational records, all past Bar exams and Bar records).” You shouldn’t let the “red tape” and paperwork deter you from pursuing your dreams – but you should be prepared to need a little added effort to fulfill the requirements for admission.

Read Our Advice On Getting Through the Character & Fitness Review Process!

III. Strategies for Returning to the Law

A. Start with Motivation: Know Your Big “Why”

The bar exam is a big achievement – and studying for it is an equally large commitment. You need to know why you want to do this. There will be a short-term investment of time, effort, and resources in order to get the reward that you want. It is very important to know why the investment is worthwhile to you in order to maintain the motivation you will need. Visualize your end goal and focus on it. Really: set aside time to create a clear mental picture of what you want for the future and focus on it! For me, this exercise was extremely motivating. Repeating this will help you when you are struggling with putting in the necessary time, effort, or energy. You will know your personal reasons for why the effort will be worth it.

B. Do a Realistic Assessment: What You Need to Succeed

Set aside a realistic, but consistent, amount of study time. With other added responsibilities, studying for eight hours straight every day may not be realistic for your situation – it certainly wasn’t for mine. I was able to devote three hours every day to studying, no more. Although I couldn’t devote more time than that, I could make sure I consistently devoted those three hours to bar study.

Know who your support group is - and rely on them! Looking back, Philip and I agreed: we knew we couldn’t do it alone. He said he found that “a good support group is critical.” This was certainly true in my case as well as I looked to family, friends, and childcare providers to help pick up the slack on tasks I normally completed myself. In addition, you may still be in touch with law school friends who passed the bar before you did; they may help you keep perspective. If so, your former peers will now serve as "bar exam mentors."

Create your own schedule using available tools and resources. Your schedule may look very different than a student who has just graduated from law school and is studying all day, every day. It is still just as important (if not more important!) to create a calendar to help you set study goals and ensure you are on track. Creating an individual calendar can help you to stay organized, and balance your time between knowledge acquisition and exam-taking skills.

You can use the basic BarMax calendar or the new, extended study plan, which is designed for those who plan to study part-time over 4-6 months. In my case, I used the basic calendar as a template but adjusted it for myself: I started several months “early” because I knew that my daily time was limited, and I spread out some assignments from one day, to two or even three days. You may end up adjusting your calendar and expectations several times during your months of study! Still, having written goals will help you to stay on track and progress. Whichever BarMax plan you use, adapt it to your needs!

Assess your strengths and weaknesses in each subject individually. If you remember some law school classes well or practiced in a bar-tested area of law, you may choose to divide the subjects tested on the bar exam into three categories: 1. subjects you learned well in law school or practice and still remember

  1. those you are familiar with but need to improve in, and
  2. subjects that are completely unfamiliar.

Your goal with the first group can be to simply review, refresh, and learn how those items are tested on the exam. For the subjects where you have had exposure to the material but lack mastery, you can build on the familiarity you already have, but may need more study time. As for the final group, those unknown completely subjects, you’ll need to learn the material from square one. BarMax has you covered on that front, but you should plan to devote more time to those – especially if one of them is a heavily-tested MBE subject area.

When organizing your study calendar, remember that the essay-only subjects typically have LESS content to learn.

Choose mostly active study strategies. As a BarMax student, you will learn to prioritize “active study” – such as writing essays and wrestling through practice questions open book – over passive activities. Merely watching lectures and reading outlines results in lower retention, and is therefore not the most efficient use of your time. Relying on active study helps you stay more engaged and hone your exam-taking skills. Active study, across all the tested subjects, is the best way to build a solid knowledge base.

C. Play to Your Strengths

Perhaps the biggest advantage of an alternative path to bar passage is timing. You do not have to fit in all your studies between law school graduation and the July bar exam. Use this to your advantage! Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the bar exam – 4 to 6 months in advance may be appropriate, depending on how much study time you can realistically devote. This will allow you to pace yourself, review core subjects thoroughly, and identify any areas where you may need extra help. (BarMax students gain access to the entire program at purchase – so if you are using BarMax, you will have the materials when you need them and can organize your studies around your strengths.)

Remember Who You Are

It’s important to remember that time away from the law does not change who you are or what you are capable of achieving. If you are preparing to sit for the bar exam then you have already graduated from law school (or maybe even passed the bar in another jurisdiction). You are still the same successful student - you just have more life experiences. While returning to the law after time away certainly felt daunting, it helped to remind myself that I was just as (if not more) capable now than I was five years before. I personally allowed myself to experiment and figure out what worked for who I am now, not just the law student I was five years ago. My faith in my abilities and in my family’s resiliency was rewarded when I told my children that I passed the bar and my son told me he was proud of me. That made it all worth it!