To begin, I have three things I want to tell you. First, there is no shame in failing the bar exam. Second, there is no shame in failing the bar exam! Third, there is no shame in failing the bar exam!
I know, it’s easier said than felt. But there are so many reasons people fail, and not a single one warrants shame. Those reasons include:
- The bar exam is really hard, and many people (most in CA) don’t pass
- The bar exam is embedded with institutional bias
- Sometimes you have a bad day, month, or year
- Most bar review courses don’t accommodate a variety of learning styles
- The bar exam does not test good lawyering, so much as it tests your ability to memorize, regurgitate, and conform
Of course, when students don’t pass, we encourage them to self-reflect so that they can do better the next time around. But that process does not necessitate a devastating shame spiral that can actually be a barrier to passing the next time.
What if, instead of being silent about failure, we shared without shame? What if, through sharing, we celebrated our strengths, and our capacity to adapt, persevere, and grow?
I don’t say this to undermine the fact that failing sucks. It’s absurdly and prohibitively expensive to retake, and the stakes are high for people who have jobs on the line, families to feed, and debt to pay off. All of these considerations highlight some of the most problematic elements of the exam.
But failing the bar exam is not a personal failing. “I failed the bar exam” and “I am a failure” are different stories with different outcomes. Talking about it can help illuminate the difference.
The first time I took California bar exam, I didn’t pass, and I went public about it in a social media post. I asserted that I knew my worth, that the exam did not define me or my ability to be a great advocate, and that I was about to learn a lot about my ability to overcome failure. Yes, part of this was about getting ahead of the message – announcing that I didn’t feel ashamed meant that nobody else could shame me. But I also believed in what I was saying.
At this point, you may be thinking these warm, fuzzy feelings are all well and good, but what if going public means a potential employer finds out you didn’t pass your first time? Well, has anyone ever asked you how many times you took your drivers’ test before getting into your car? I hope the answer is no. It’s the same with the bar exam. Once you’re a lawyer, nobody cares about how many times it took you to get there. They’re just happy to have you on the team.
So, here’s what actually happened when I shared about failing:
It Helps Others
Immediately after sharing that I failed, the messages came. “I also didn’t pass.” “I failed too, and I haven’t gotten out of bed since I found out.” “I failed, and you’re the first person I’ve told.”
I was hearing from some of my smartest law school classmates. Literal geniuses. While they didn’t all go as public as I had, telling me helped them cope. It helped me too. When you know that someone smart, accomplished, and on top of their sh*t is capable of failing, it defeats the idea that you failed because you are not those things. Anyone can fail the bar exam, and talking about it helps others feel less alone, get out of bed, and get to work on passing the next test.
It Builds Community
If I hadn’t shared my experience, I would not have found my study buddy. She and I held each other accountable, practiced together, quizzed each other, and, most notably, offered support. Because we shared the experience of failing, we were able to talk each other through the fear that failing once meant failing again.
Studying with someone else may not be your thing, and that’s fine. But I cannot overstate the importance of having someone who gets you unstuck when you feel like you can’t write another practice essay without screaming. And sometimes, when you spend your time encouraging someone else that they can succeed, you start to believe it about yourself.
When I called the bar prep representative at my law school right before I took the first bar exam to tell him that I still didn’t think I was writing essays properly, he told me not to worry because, “People from Harvard don’t fail unless they really didn’t put in the work.”
As someone who went to Harvard, put in the work, and failed, I can tell you this isn’t true. But his words returned to me when I learned that I failed, and nothing else made me feel more alone. Was I the only person in the history of my 200 year-old law school to have tried their best and still not passed the first time? He made me believe I was.
It was only because I shared my experience that I realized what he said was not only made up, but it was part of a law school culture that stigmatizes and dismisses students who don’t pass. Would normalizing the fact that intelligent, skilled, worthwhile people don’t pass the bar for a variety of reasons erode the paralyzing stigma of not passing?
Talking about it did for me on a personal level, and perhaps institutions would follow suit if we acknowledged bar failure as a common occurrence.
It Feels Good!
When I was studying for the bar exam the second time, I led casual, everyday conversations with the fact that I had failed. Talking about it was a constant process of getting it out of my system, along with the anxiety, fear, and self-doubt that could creep in if I was left alone with my thoughts for too long. By talking about it with others, I was not only purging the insecurities that came along with it, but I was also inviting support. The more open I was, the more I realized that the only person who would shame me about this failure was me, and I had decided not to do that.
There is power in owning this experience. There is value in connecting with others who share it. And there is no shame in failing the bar exam – so let’s talk about it!