I found your website when I was searching online about how to help my son who failed the California bar exam. He is really upset and I don’t know what to do. He is a smart kid who has always done really well and performed at the top of his classes his entire life, so I think this is not only disappointing for him professionally, but I think he is also taking it very personally. He keeps saying he can’t believe he was so stupid, and that is very unlike him.
I’m worried that if he goes back to his life in California (we live in Oregon) that he might end up getting really depressed if left to his own devices. I also just don’t know what he can do differently. He said he worked really hard last time around. Anyway, I’m not sure what to do, we don’t have a lot of extra money right now, but your prices looked reasonable and you seem to have a lot of experience and know what you’re talking about. Do you have any advice for how I can help my son? I want to support him in any way I can, but mostly I’m just worried about him. Any help you could offer would be great.
Thanks for your e-mail. We are sorry to hear your son got disappointing news! It is completely natural for him to be feeling bad about it, and it is great that you want to help him. Here are some things we tell parents who are looking for ideas about how to support their son or daughter through this difficult time.
Let your child grieve
Failing the bar exam is a major blow to future lawyers professionally, but it also really takes a toll on one’s ego. Usually students in law school have been used to performing well academically, and they are not used to failing. This can make getting bad bar exam news even harder. For many of us law school types, it can be natural when faced with disappointment (especially disappointment in ourselves) to bury those feelings and try to get back into the game as quickly as possible. If you think your child might be doing this, we would recommend showing your child that it’s ok to be upset—in fact, it’s really a necessary part of the process. Feeling the disappointment can be what helps drive them forward once they’re ready. Let your child be sad and mope if they need to. That said, if you notice your child going from grief to self-sabotage or depression (see below), you’ll want to nip that in the bud.
Cut off self-sabotage if you see it happening
If you hear your child saying things like “I’m so stupid,” or “I’m such a failure,” or “I will never make it,” it’s best to cut this kind of monologue off before it really has the chance to begin in earnest. As difficult as it is, try to keep things positive. Encourage your child that they are smart, or they never would have gotten into and finished law school! Tell them failure and adversity are always hard in the moment, but they are also temporary. Even though it is a horrible feeling to fail the bar, this feeling won’t last forever. Let them know that many brilliant and accomplished people have failed the bar too (e.g. Jerry Brown, Hillary Clinton and John F. Kennedy, Jr.). It doesn’t mean a person isn’t smart, and it definitely doesn’t mean they will never have a successful career!
Don’t be part of the problem by adding pressure
Sometimes parents don’t realize the effect their words can have on their child. If you’ve told your child anything about being disappointed in them, or mentioned that they are really derailing their future, go back and make amends for these statements, because your child may have taken them really hard. Explain to your child that you want them to be happy and that you want whatever success for them that they desire, but that you will love them and support them no matter what happens, and that you know how much pressure they are under already. Your child already know they failed, and this is already really hard to face. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem, offer support rather than chiding them or being disappointed. Consider asking your child how he or she wants to tell people the bad news. Oftentimes, family, friends, or neighbors will inquire, so make sure you two come up with a response that your child feels comfortable with.
Support your child in non-academic ways
It’s amazing how big an impact comforts from home and family can have on us when we are feeling down. A lot of parents think they need to start going through the books with their child or quizzing them on flashcards as soon as they find out they failed the bar. Even if you’re an attorney yourself, leave this kind of work to tutors and study programs. Sometimes getting this kind of help from a parent or family member can actually feel like judgment or added pressure to the student. Instead, give your son or daughter a delicious meal, offer to help or have someone else help clean their apartment for them, get them a gift certificate for a massage, or take them to see a movie. If you can afford it, money toward study programs and materials can also be a great help if your child needs that. If you have the space and ability, let them know they can stay home for as long as they need to to get back on their feet. If not, help them figure out logistical issues in their lives so they can set up a calm, peaceful place to study for the next few months (assuming they’re taking the next administration of the exam).
Try to help your student figure out what went wrong
People fail the bar for many, many different reasons. The very first step in helping your child get back on their feet after failing (beyond just giving them space to grieve about it) is to figure out what went wrong in the exam room. If you don’t already know this, the exam is broken up into three parts, essays, multiple choice questions (or “MBEs”), and performance tests (or “PTs”). Different skills go into each of these components. Your child will be receiving an official score sheet in the mail with their breakdown for each of these parts. Give your child the opportunity to discuss their scores if they want to. If your child says they “only missed it by a few points,” or seems hesitant to really go through their numbers in depth to figure out the problem, it will be a lot harder to pass next time around. It’s crucial to know what the stumbling blocks were so they can fix them going forward. Having help from a professional tutor or study program to interpret and assess these score reports can also be a great way to figure out where your child had difficulty and what specifically to focus on in the future.
Talk to your child about changing their study routine
When students fail the bar, it’s because something wasn’t working. Maybe they didn’t dedicate enough time to studying, or maybe they even dedicated too much time and got burned out. Perhaps they focused their time studying the wrong things, or approaching studying in a less-than-ideal way. Did they use a big bar study program, an individual tutor, or did they study on their own? Maybe they had a defeatist attitude about themselves or didn’t practice adequately. Practicing MBE, PT, and essay questions is absolutely key to doing well on the bar. It’s also crucial to review multiple choice and writing exercises and, if possible, to get feedback on how to change and improve. Ask your child what he or she thinks about the studying they did for the last exam. Did they write essays? How many? Did they review these essays on their own and then rewrite them if needed? How much multiple choice practice did they do? Again, you don’t want questions like this to feel like an attack or additional pressure, but it’s important for your child to think critically about what to alter this time around so they don’t just adopt the same tactics they were using on the last exam.
Talk to your child about their calendar and study plan
If there is anything you can take off your child’s plate, such as time spent grocery shopping, doing laundry, or running errands, you should discuss this with them. If your child is planning on holding down a job while studying for the next administration of the exam, encourage them to talk to their boss about taking a leave of absence or getting more time off, or a more flexible schedule so they can dedicate more time to the exam. If you have grandchildren, help your son or daughter figure out child care so they can free up some more time to study. Having a concrete study plan and a specific calendar to stick to is crucial. Encourage your child to come up with these things on their own, or talk to someone knowledgeable about this process who can help them.
Give your child space
Sometimes there’s such thing as too much advice, or too much help. Parents can sometimes forget that even though they love their child very much and want to do everything they can, this is your child’s own bar experience, and it is important that he or she come back from it in their own time on their own terms. You can’t study for your child, and you can’t be there with them in the exam room. This is a solo journey in a lot of ways. Your child needs to become ready to commit to tackling this exam again, and putting in the extraordinary time, effort, and determination that involves. They need to come to the conclusion that they are ready and willing, and they need to get there on their own. That said, don’t let them wait too long. Most bar study programs are between 8 and 10 weeks long, so if it gets to be past 10 weeks before the next exam, talk to your child about his or her goals and help set up a study program.
Seek professional help if needed
Failing the bar exam can send even people who have never struggled with depression before into the depths of despair. You know your child. If it has been a week or two since they’ve gotten the bad news and they’re still not interested in talking about it to anyone, not getting out of bed or leaving their room or apartment, or if they start to seem more disheveled and detached from the hobbies, activities or people who used to hold great importance for them, you might want to discuss seeking professional help. Also, if they mention being really anxious or panicked during the exam itself, this can be a red flag as well. Nervousness is completely natural for an exam like this, but if they faced debilitating anxiety that became overwhelming and made it difficult to focus on the exam, this is something to get checked out. Believe it or not, there are actually therapists who deal specifically with bar failure. It’s a really unique and sensitive issue, and there are people out there who can help if you or your child feel ill-equipped to handle this on your own.
Consider getting the help of an experienced tutor
We are here to help! If your child needs one-on-one advice, encouragement and feedback from people who have been through this process before and helped many, many other students like them, please feel free to contact us. Our bar exam tutors always work with students on an individualized basis and focus on their own, specific issues and needs as they prepare for this exam. If this sounds like something that might work well for your child, or if you have any questions or want more information, let us know!
Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Why I Hired a Bar Exam Tutor
- The Question I’ve Never Been Asked About the Bar Exam
- Does it Make Sense to Skip This Bar Exam?
- I Just Failed the Bar. Should I Take the Next Bar Offered or Take a Break?
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