A Exceptional Work Ethic and Unwavering Positive Attitude Help CalSouthern’s Sachiko Noguchi Pass the California Bar Examination
CalSouthern’s community of learners and graduates is replete with stories of perseverance—people overcoming challenges to reach goals and better themselves, through hard work, sheer will and determination. A perfect example of just such a story is that of Sachiko Noguchi.
Noguchi is a 2009 graduate of the CalSouthern School of Law whose holiday season is sure to be extra festive this year—she recently received the news that she passed the California Bar Exam. While that news is notable enough on its face, it becomes even more impressive when you learn the full story.
The study of law didn’t come easy for Noguchi. But it wasn’t because she struggled with the material. Noguchi is a native of Japan and entered law school with limited English reading and writing skills. She estimates that it took her three to four times longer than a native speaker to read her assignments; she seemed to always fall behind the course schedules. And when it came time to prepare for and take the bar, the language issue was even more imposing. On her first attempt, she wasn’t able to complete most of the essay questions on time. She failed. She worked hard on her writing, studied diligently, and took the bar a second time. Again, she failed.
Imagine the frustration. You are extremely intelligent. You know the material. But you simply can’t read and comprehend the questions quickly enough or articulate your answers adequately in your non-native language. It must have been maddening. All those months of studying three hours each day on top of working a full-time job—with nothing to show for it. The temptation to give up must have been strong.
But quitting wasn’t an option for Noguchi. She didn’t even permit herself to feel any frustration or self pity. “My difficulties with the language weren’t anyone else’s fault. My struggles were my own,” she says, matter-of-factly. “The best way to handle the situation was just to work harder.”
The hard work paid off this year when she took and passed one of the nation’s most difficult bar examinations on her third attempt. CalSouthern caught up with a very happy Noguchi to discuss the bar exam, her CalSouthern experience, and her plans for the future.
CalSouthern: It’s probably safe to assume that the language issue was the most difficult aspect of the bar exam for you. Were there other challenges?
Sachiko Noguchi: You’re right—the language issue was the primary challenge for me. There’s so much reading to be done—in preparation and on the exam itself—and all in English, of course, which is not my primary language. Also, I found that maintaining my concentration and mental and physical stamina was difficult, as well. For months, I was taking bar review courses and studying three hours each day, all while working full time. And I did this three times. It was a schedule that required quite a bit of endurance.
CalSouthern: How did you manage your time?
Noguchi: I studied mostly in the early morning hours. My office work started at 10:00 a.m. I would arrive at the office by 7:00 and study until my workday began at 10:00. If I missed a day for some reason, I would make it up over the weekend.
CalSouthern: It’s difficult to imagine preparing for and taking such a difficult exam in a non-native language. What was the most challenging aspect? The volume of reading? The writing?
Noguchi: Given the complexity of the material and all the terminology, reading comprehension was quite difficult for me. It probably took me three or four times longer to read the material than most native English speakers.
It was especially difficult during my first year of law school; there were many times I would read cases and simply be clueless as to what I had read. Expressions like “judgment notwithstanding the verdict” are complicated enough for native speakers; I had no idea what they meant. It took a long time for me to develop any level of comfort with legal terminology. English was already a second language and the law sometimes felt like a third.
Then, when studying for the baby bar, I realized just how bad my writing was: grammar, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure—everything. I wrote more in keywords, rather than in complete sentences. It came down to practice. In preparing for the bar this last time, I must have gone through two dozen pens.
CalSouthern: Can you describe your feelings upon learning that you had passed?
Noguchi: I was just speechless. Actually, when I first searched the results online, I received a message that said, “The name above appears on the passing list.” I stared at this sentence for several minutes, not really certain what it meant and whether I’d passed or not. I asked my husband—whose English is much worse than mine, by the way—what he thought it meant, and he wasn’t sure, either. Eventually, after a few minutes, it hit me: “Oh my god, I’ve passed!”
I immediately called friends, family, my co-workers, and bosses to give them the good news.
CalSouthern: After you’d taken the exam this time, were you confident that you would pass?
Noguchi: No, not particularly. As you know, this was the third time I’d taken the bar. The first time, I was sure I had not passed—my essays were not good and I knew it. The second time, I actually was pretty confident. I had been able to complete all the essay questions and felt like I had a good chance. But I failed. The third time, I didn’t know what to think. I made myself set my expectations low, so that I would not be disappointed if I failed.
CalSouthern: What are your plans for the future? Are there any areas of law that you are particularly interested in?
Noguchi: My short-term goal is to practice immigration law; I’ve worked in this area as a legal assistant for 10 years. I would ultimately like to work in employment-based immigration law. This requires knowledge of corporation law, which I will now study. Trusts, wills, and estates are also of interest to me. No litigation for me, though.
I’ll stay with my firm for the immediate future to learn tactics, strategies, how to organize an office, etc. After a few years, perhaps I’ll look into starting my own practice, staying here in Southern California.
CalSouthern: What are some of your strongest memories of CalSouthern?
Noguchi: I happened to be one of those students who didn’t communicate with faculty, advisors, and staff as frequently as other students probably did. Because of my language issues, I always seemed to be behind, so I spent all my available time reading and working on assignments, reading my mentors’ feedback, incorporating it, and moving on to the next assignment. I really didn’t have the time to get to know my professors and advisors well, and that’s something I very much regret now.
Looking back, one thing that stands out to me is that I was given the flexibility to work at my own pace. I was never pressured to work faster than I was comfortable—that was very important for me because I really needed the extra time.
Also, a key moment for me was when the Associate Dean Bernadette Agaton reached out to me to let me know that I really needed to improve my reading and writing. She had advice for me, she recommended some courses and pointed me toward additional resources. I was very happy to have received this personal attention, and it was very helpful.
CalSouthern: Do you have any advice for fellow CalSouthern learners who are preparing for the baby bar or the bar exam itself?
Noguchi: Well, the things that were most critical for me—like working with language programs—have little application to most other students who are in a very different position as native English speakers. But I do encourage people to make a study schedule. I modeled mine after the BarBri schedule, allowing myself a full two and a half months. In my opinion, the schedules developed by the proprietary bar review companies are the best. They were designed and have been refined to best prepare you for the bar. There will be times when it will be difficult, but sticking to the schedule will definitely help you in the long run.
If their circumstances allow, I would also encourage students to take at least a one month leave of absence prior to the exam to focus all their energy on studying. For the first two exams, I worked up until 10 days or so before the exam. I had to, because of finances, but it made things extremely difficult. The third time I took the exam, I decided to make the commitment to take more time off, and I think it made a big difference.
Finally, I would encourage people to sacrifice other things in their lives—for example, your social life and entertainment—for at least one month. The bar exam is so important, and that month is such a short period of time in the big picture, that it’s well worth it.