Last year, I shared my experience preparing and writing the NLS bar finals on my blog.
On my Youtube channel, I once again share a little bit of that experience as well as some valuable reading tips for law school students, law undergraduates and individuals interested in pursuing a law career in Nigeria and/or getting called to the Nigerian bar.
I also discuss how to handle pressure before, during and after the examinations period.
Nothing could have ever prepared me for the mental trauma that was going to be the Nigerian Law School. Absolutely Nothing.
Almost half a decade later and I still remember it as clear as anything in my mind (see how I said “almost half a decade later” and not “four years later”, with the former sounding a lot longer than the latter? LOL. English is a beautiful thing, really).
I had successfully graduated from the university with a first class in Law and was excited about the learning experience the Nigerian Law School would offer. I love learning new things in life generally and I figured this experience would be no different. I had watched Hollywood law movies and series so “passing the bar” seemed like something exciting that would happen as long as you put in the hours and read well. However, I would soon come to find out that “no be everybody wey sabi book dey pass”.
At the time I wrote the NLS bar finals, a candidate’s overall result category was determined by his/her “worst” grade. There is the first class, second class upper, second class lower, pass, conditional pass and fail categories. If you got a first class, it meant you scored As in the all the courses written during the finals. A second class upper meant your lowest grade was a B. So you could have all As and one B and would have the same result category as someone who had all Bs…and so on and so fourth.
Now, word on the streets is that the NLS grades your Bar Finals by your average overall score. So I hear the pressure may not be as crazy. May or may not be true, but so I hear.
Anyway, so I got into the law school excited at the new learning opportunities. It was all fun and games until we got to weeks before the exams and I realized how much coursework I had to get into my head. (This is a good time to talk about the fact that you never know how well your brain can process and memorize a ton of information until you have to write the NLS Bar Finals).
As the Big 5 (the number of courses we take at the Nigerian law school) approached, I remember thinking I was going to lose my mind. I was barely getting enough sleep, I went through the worst forms of anxiety and was still trying to memorize almost all the sections of CAMA (Companies and Allied Matters Act…for the non lawyers, there are more than 600 sections) at the same time! I would stay up trying to read, fall asleep from exhaustion and then wake up and cry because…why should I be falling asleep when I still had tons to read?!
I would stay up all night reading and falling asleep and reading some more and falling asleep some more. When my eyes got too heavy, I would stand at my balcony at 2am with a torchlight to my books just so I did not fall asleep. (Oh, I fell asleep standing a couple of times). Of course, the mosquitoes would have a field day feasting on me, but what did that matter in the grand scheme of things?
I would drink all the cans of red bull and cups of coffee I could find…and still fall asleep!! Then I would wake up and cry because precious time had gone while I slept like a donkey…then I would stop crying because I would could not read and cry at the same time. But I would read for a while and then cry for some minutes…then continue reading! Oh, I was a mess! 😅😩
In fact, I stopped eating dinner at some point because it seemed like 24 hours was not enough to read and pack all the information into my head. I could therefore not risk wasting the valuable 45 minutes I could use to read to stand in line waiting to buy fried yam or rice and peppered sauce from Mama Aisha. A perfect waste of time!
The worst was when I would stay up all night reading a particular course then the next day, someone would ask me a question on what I had just read and I would blank out! I would even ask “Sorry, was I in class the day this was taught?”. With the person’s positive confirmation that I was in class, I would just silently weep in my head at how I was going to fail the Bar Finals…afterwards, I would go and cry. Yup, there was a lot of crying going on.
Along with all the sections of acts and laws, principles of law, latin maxims and case law I had to keep in my head, the pressure I felt was next to nothing. I remember always thinking “failure is not even an option” and “you will die trying” because I just had to make my parents proud. I just had to make my family proud. I just had to make my university proud…My university because I was constantly reminded that because I graduated from a Nigerian private university with a first class, anything less than a 2-1 at the law school would seem off. The fact that it was a Nigerian private university made it worse because I would get to know of comments like “oh she graduated with a First? Let’s see what she’ll make here. That one is equivalent to pass here na.” And sometimes, these voices haunted me at night when I fell asleep…and woke up to cry.
Stories would surface of students reading so much that they would literally run mad for some days, yelling and screaming in the hostels or acting abnormally that they had to be taken to the clinic.
I would attend these CLASFON (the Christian law students association) sermons and would leave there “pumped in the Lord” and heavily convinced that he was going to fight my battles, high-fiving other hopefuls after service saying “We have passed! We have made it”… Two hours later, I would be back in my room reading, panicking and of course… balling my eyes out. Now that I think of it, I probably spent more time crying and being anxious than reading.
I know people (friends, family and university coursemates alike) would believe they were encouraging me by saying “I believe in you” “You can do this.” “Ah, is it not you?” “You’re good to go” but in mind, all I saw was one more person I was going to let down if I did not kill myself trying.
I guess it also did not really help that when I briefly visited my university to do some clearance during the law school session, some of my lecturers would say to me “I hope you are reading oo. You know the school is depending on you. Do not give us a bad name. Look at this your colleague that got first class and failed…now look at the bad name we have. Read ooo” I would smile sheepishly and nod slowly as I walked out of their offices but the pressure I would feel afterward was mindblowingly intense.
So no matter how much I tried to act like it did not matter whatever grade I came out with (I would often tell myself “abeg, anyhow we do it, it’s fine” just to make me feel better), I felt the ever-present nagging pressure perched on my shoulder as soon as I opened a book to read. I promise, after I voiced out this view to an older woman one time, she looked at me and told me softly “Rachel, you do know that you cannot afford to get anything less that a 2:1 right? And that is the reality. Fortunately or unfortunately.” Needless to say, you guessed right what I did that night.
Fastforward to the first day of my exams. I can recall vividly the way my hands shook as I wrote my first paper. I had spent so much time reading the question over and over again; not wanting to start answering questions early so I do not look like oversabi (LOL, the things I worried about back then!) Besides, the week before, the DG had advised us to spend an hour carefully reading the questions…
RULE NO 1 FOR ASPIRING LAW SCHOOL STUDENTS: DO NOT SPEND TOO MUCH TIME GOING OVER THE QUESTIONS BEFORE YOU SELECT WHICH ONE TO ANSWER! GLANCE OVER THE QUESTIONS, JOTTING DOWN THINGS YOU CAN REMEMBER IN THAT INSTANT. IN ABOUT 20 MINS YOU SHOULD KNOW WHICH ONES YOU CAN ATTEMPT. YOU WILL STILL HAVE TIME TO READ THE QUESTIONS YOU HAVE SELECTED AGAIN BEFORE YOU ANSWER THEM.
I wasted so much time reading and re-reading questions that by the time it was announced we had an hour left, I had answered just one question. I had 3 more to go. Three heavily pregnant questions.
My heart froze. My palms became sweaty and the pen kept slipping through my fingers. I suddenly broke down in the exam hall and started crying. I was sure I was going to fail and this was the end. There was no way I was going to make it. It was almost impossible to finish with the limited amount of time I had left. Plus, I had mathematics to calculate in one question I had chosen! I hate maths, for goodness sakes! I had to watch youtube videos to learn how to multiply with decimals! I cried for about two minutes at my seat to the point my vision became so blurry, I had to say silently to myself “Rachel, you cannot write and cry. Pick one.”
And so I picked writing my exam. I wrote like a mad dog. I had no time to think or go over what I had written. But I wrote like my life depended on it. at some point, I could not read my handwriting, but I did not care. I was going to die trying. And believe it or not, I finished!…or came close to finishing anyway.
After the exams, some students would attempt to approach me to discuss the answers to some of the questions with me. I would politely decline, saying “Sorry, I do not want to discuss this” and stick my earphones into my ears. LOL. One time before my ears could escape the after-exam nervous chatter, I heard someone say to his friend “Guy, shey for that number 2 your answer na 2,304?” or something like that. I promise, my answer was “0”. I just smiled and walked away. There was really nothing I could do at that point.
RULE NO 2: NEVER DISCUSS OR GO OVER THE ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS OF AN EXAM YOU JUST WROTE WITH FRIENDS OR PEOPLE WHO APPROACH YOU. DO NOT TRY TO CALCULATE YOUR SCORES. MOVE ON TO READING FOR THE NEXT PAPER, NO MATTER HOW BADLY YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE DONE. DO NOT DWELL.
It was one of the most difficult periods in my life but I am super glad it is over and I passed to my satisfaction, at least (I made a 2:1), made my family and university proud (one of my university lecturers literally took me round departments pranking other lecturers that I had failed. The look on their faces were….LOL. Now, I can say it’s funny, but then it was not, because all I kept thinking was “what if I had actually failed?”).
In my books, anyone who has passed through the Nigerian Law School in the past 7-10 years, especially on the first attempt, is a true champion, no matter the category of pass.
However not everyone had an immediate success story. Friendships were ruined, people suffered from depression while preparing for the Finals and after the results came out. Some gave up after the first paper and said they would return the next year only to venture into some other path in life. Some who had prepared so well unfortunately fell ill during the exams and could not give their best and so were judged based on that performance. Some had nervous breakdowns and went blank during the exams, forgetting all they had read and thus, coming out with not-so-great results.
Some of these horror stories continue to make the rounds amongst law students who are typically prone to suffering from high levels of anxiety, depression and nervous breakdowns while they prepare for the Finals. So, if you are currently preparing for the Bar Finals and find yourself in a not-so-great headspace right now, here are 5 simple tips you can practice to maintain optimal mental health while preparing for the Finals:
Stay away from toxic/negative people:
These could be friends or coursemates who just want to draw from you but have nothing to offer you. Stay away from any form of negativity or negative-minded people who may have already “given up” before the exam because they cannot “come and kill” themselves. Also, if you feel a tremendous amount of pressure from a particular source; perhaps friends or even family, reduce contact (as much as possible) with that source until your finals are over. You do not need constant reminders that your village people and communities are all depending on you.
Do not compare yourself to others:
You may look around you and think most people have it figured out. It seems like they are done reading and confident they will definitely pass the Finals. It seems like some people are not shaking and are ready to kill it.
The people who answer questions the most during lectures may have already started giving tutorials to many hopefuls who flock at their feet. And you are in awe of them and how confident you are. You start thinking of your own life and how you cannot even remember the section of CAMA that talks about removal of directors (hey, calm down. If you cannot remember, refer to your jotter or notes).
Do not waste anytime comparing yourself to others. They are most likely as scared and nervous as you are. It is not your business. Do not spend time wishing you were anyone, that would not happen. Focus on you.
Find and maintain a system that works for you
Do not get caught up in reading/studying patterns that do not work for you because your friends/room mate or whoever is doing same. Find what works for you and maintain that system! If you are a night reader, read at night; if you can read during the day, do so; if you do not like reading in the library, my friend, please don’t go. You will not suddenly appear more serious because you went to the library to read.
Get some sleep
I know this may seem impossible at this point and as the Finals get closer but just try. Even if it is occasional naps or at least four hours in the night. During the exam week, the reality is you might barely get as much sleep as is needed for your body so these weeks leading up can help to get some much needed sleep. Remember you cannot cheat your body. Some stayed up all night reading only to fall asleep at the exam table while holding a pen, ready to “kill it”.
Believe in yourself
Last and very importantly, believe in yourself! You can do this! You have come this far because you are brilliant and smart. You may doubt your brain’s capacity and ability to handle how much information you are currently taking in, but do not worry, your brain can handle far much more than what you are putting in.
Believe in you. Take it one step at at a time, a chapter at a time, a case at a time, a section at a time.
You can do it and you will do it!
I hope this was helpful and encouraging in some ways. If you’ve written the Bar in whatever jurisdiction, please share your experience or a tip or two that worked for you to help law students stay sane while they prepare for the Bar Finals!
You can also watch a video I did on my youtube channel recently outlining practical tips to help you ace the Bar Finals!
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It has been an amazing three years and some months of lawyering, Nigerian style and what can I say? Actually I can say a lot. For one, it’s been an interesting and eye-opening three years full of lessons, wins, losses, achievements and disappointments. But hey, we move.
Interestingly enough, it’s funny how I feel this profession chose me because when I was younger, all I wanted to become in this world was a banker. LMAO. I just thought about how bankers in Nigeria had to go to work today (my sister would read this and kill me). Yup, I wanted to work in a bank because I thought bankers were the richest people on the planet and had all the money in the world (if only I knew right? Lol). Then I wanted to be a computer…whatever. Computer scientist, computer analyst…I did not know the right word at the time; all I knew and felt strongly in my heart was that I wanted to work with computers because I thought all I would do all day is play computer games and “catch fun” in life.
Then I started watching all those 90s law tv shows and I loved how the Judges looked so regal and serious with their black gowns and gavels. So I felt that if I became a lawyer, I could become a Judge as well and then hit the gavel on anyone’s head as I pleased. And the thought of hitting people on the head with a huge brown gavel pleased me immensely. Honestly, this is the reason I became a lawyer…oh and the fact that I talked “too much” and typically, people would be like “oh you talk alot, you should become lawyer”.
Fast forward to decades after I made that decision (at the time of deciding, nobody told me of the devil that is the Nigerian Law School ooo), and needless to say, it was nothing like I imagined growing up but it has been three years of just learning and getting better. So, I currently practice as a Barrister and Solicitor of Nigeria (this sounds really cool, actually) and that means I appear in court on a regular basis and do some non-court legal work as well.
I have learned quite a number of lessons working in a very high-standard-demanding top-tier law firm and from law in general. I have also learned some lessons from mixing with lawyers from different backgrounds with different ways of doing things. I share some of these lessons below:
There are always two sides to every story
Or should I say three…or even four; the parties’ sides, the truth and what the judge perceives to be the truth. Sometimes you hear a convincing “story” from someone and it seems too true so you immediately hop on it and ride with it to the death, meanwhile you may not even know this person, but you strongly believe“oh this has to be the truth…look how she’s crying or look how sad he is, he must be telling the truth” But I have learned and am still learning that there’s always another side to the same story and one should not get carried away with any sentimentalism no matter how “true” a story may seem. So the next time you are about to mentally bash someone after you’ve been told a story, remember that there’s most likely another side to the same story.
It is okay to not know
Generally, I’ve learned from practicing law that it’s not always about knowing all the laws to quote so as to sound smart to colleagues but also knowing where to find these laws. It is almost impossible to know all the time frames required by law for different issues or all the sections in all the laws (don’t worry, those people who come on TV to talk about legal issues did some research before hand. They’re not just quoting it from the top of their heads as they make it seem) which is perfectly fine.
Well, it’s definitely not okay to not know basic legal principles as a lawyer or not know the answers to questions at a meeting where you’re required to give a legal perspective on things. BUT…the lesson is while it is perfectly okay to not know everything, one must continuously strive to make an effort in personal development…so one does not look stupid when asked questions.
The loudest in the room is not always the smartest
Okay, this one I learned in court. My fellow Nigerian Barristers who have learned this can gather here for a photo. Please how many times have you been in court and someone is yelling at the top of their voice or flapping their gowns dramatically while occasionally glancing back at the gallery to show off their “legal prowess”? Meanwhile, the lawyer has no clue what he/she’s saying! Lawyers know this is generally termed “playing to the gallery” so that non-lawyers in court get the idea that the lawyer yelling is a top shot.
But this has been a real big lesson, learning that you can be smart and know things but don’t have to yell and shout all the time. How do they say it “Empty vessels make the loudest noise”.
Don’t take things personal
They were not kidding when they said “It’s a man’s world”. This lesson is another one I’ve learned from going to court. Being a woman in a male dominated profession (in fact, in law, the higher you go, the less female lawyers one sees) could be tough. And it is filled with so many misogynistic men who genuinely believe a woman would not understand certain things that pertain to law just because she’s a woman. Sigh.
You just learn not to take things personally before you go and die on top of another person’s wahala. Some older male lawyers legit say things like “Ehn you won’t understand, you’re a woman.” or “My dear you know you’re a young woman, you can’t know these things.” And these words have stung when they have been said to me and it can be annoying and frustrating but I guess I have learned that it tells alot about the men making these statements than me and so I have had to learn not to take them personal.B
Yup, another one I learned from attending court proceedings. Like, you just have to be patient. You have no choice. For someone like me who is mighty impatient, there’s nothing you can do when there are 29 cases on a cause list (where the cases to be handled by a judge are displayed…usually on a paper) and your case is the last one. If you like be impatient, you’ll just die there. Where do you want to go? You just learn to buckle in, keep yourself busy and learn to sit in one place for an extended period of time. And yes it can be exhausting and tiring, but I found that subconsciously learning patience is helping me in other areas of my life.
P.S, when I posted this photo on instagram, at least 15 people laughed at me and empathised at the same time. We know the struggle.
Give your best!
I am learning to give my best in everything I do which is a hard lesson to learn because some days I’m on fire for the law (if that’s a thing) and some days are just bleh like googling for the next public holiday. But in the law firm I work, you really don’t have a choice but to bring your A-game to the table everytime because we take quality of work seriously.
It’s been an amazing three years and I look forward to many more experiences and lessons in the years to come!