As bar results filter in from all over the country, the news is either met with extreme relief or any number of other more negative reactions: shock, disbelief, fear, regret, maybe even some self-loathing and shame—to name a few. For those of you who got bad news, you have some important questions to consider, and some important steps to take. Based on helping re-takers through this process many times over the years, here is my best advice for you as you launch into this difficult process.
Grieve a little. Or a lot. And try not to beat yourself up too much.
When you find out you failed the bar exam, it’s not uncommon to want to stay in your room under the covers. It can be really depressing. Here is an exchange my friend told she had with her husband when her brother failed the bar and came to stay with them:
Friend: “My brother’s only staying with us for a little while, he just failed the bar, and he’s really sad.”
Friend’s Husband: “Yeah, I get that, but is he seriously too sad to even shower? The guest room reeks and he’s so depressed, the kids are getting scared.”
Friend: “Yes, he seriously is too sad to shower right now. He’s a mess. He just needs to process everything. Tell the kids to leave him alone.”
Hopefully, you haven’t given up on showering, but you get the point. Failing this exam can transform previously vivacious, tenacious go-getters into listless (maybe even stinky) sloths.
You probably worked hard, and getting this kind of bad news is disappointing. Go ahead and wallow in your grief a little bit. Try to stay off the message boards and Twitter and don’t compare yourself to other people and think, “Wow, I must be way dumber than I thought,” or “I guess I’m not cut out to be a lawyer after all, my worst fears have just been confirmed…”
I can tell you this: Lots of smart attorneys and people who have gone on to have highly successful careers have failed this exam at some point. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, and it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You might just have to try one more time. You know what they say: Success is getting up just one more time than you fall.
Ask yourself: Do I even want to practice law? Why am I really doing this?
For many, failing the bar can have a loss of self-worth attached to it. You may be wondering what other people think of you. You may have to give up job prospects or put your career on hold. Maybe you feel like someone you care about is disappointed. In any case, regardless of your individual situation, it’s never a fun position to be in.
So, the first question I have for you is, why are you even putting yourself through all of this?
There are good reasons and bad reasons to re-take the bar exam. Examples of some potentially good reasons? I want to practice law some day. I need to pass to advance my career. What about some bad reasons? Here are some common ones we hear: My parents/family/significant other/children will never respect me unless I pass. I will never respect myself unless I pass. It seems like the logical next step after law school. Which of these camps do you fall into?
Studying for and taking the bar again is a strenuous, expensive, exhausting and emotionally tiresome experience, and getting a nice piece of paper at the end of these three days does not make you a better or smarter person or mean you will have a more fulfilling life. So, before you launch headlong into another round, just make sure it’s actually what you want to do. If it is, great! If not, that’s perfectly okay too.
Take stock of what you did to prepare for the last exam.
Now, if you’ve decided you do want to push onward, the next step is to evaluate what went wrong last time around so you can fix it. It’s almost impossible to blindly tackle a problem and solve it if you’re not even sure what it is you’re trying to solve. So, think about these common problem areas, and be honest with yourself. Did you do your very best in each area, or did you fall short of your full potential in some way?
- How many full, timed, closed book essays did you write in each subject? How many PTs and MBEs did you do? Write down your actual numbers. Be honest.
- When your reviewed answers for essays, PTs, and MBEs, did you really take the time to learn from that review so you could incorporate that growth into your next practice exam, or were you more focused on just cranking through your to-do list? This is a big one.
- Did you know all the rules you needed stone cold going into the exam, or was your knowledge more cursory or wishy-washy? Were there any rules that you did not know all the elements for?
- Did you make attack plans while studying?
- On the exam, did you plan out your essays and PTs before writing them? How solid were these plans? Were they just rough outlines, or did you actually match up which facts and law should go together in each section? The difference in these can be the difference between passing and failing.
- What was it that really did you in? Were there any external factors at play? Distracting people or commitments? Not enough study time? Nerves, anxiety, exhaustion or boredom? Did you have any surprises during the test itself?
- Did you take breaks while studying and otherwise take care of your mind and body? How geared up did you feel physically and mentally going into day one of the exam? What about days two and three?
If you had to nail down the one thing that kept you from passing this exam, what would it be? Ponder this one. Maybe it’s a whole litany of contributing factors, or perhaps there’s one major roadblock looming between you and passing. Figure out what these things are and write them down so you know what to focus on later. Naming your demons is the only way to slay them.
Don’t push your graded work under the rug. Use it to make yourself stronger.
I can’t tell you how many students are reluctant to review their old essays and PTs once they get them back in the mail. I even had one student who burned them all because he was so frustrated. Yes, burned, like with actual fire. Well, that might feel super cathartic, but it’s not helping you learn anything from your mistakes.
Once you get your exam answers back, take them apart—really dissect them. Ask yourself how they are different than the sample answers that got published. How so? Did you use every single fact from the fact pattern? If not, that’s a big red flag for you and something to work on going forward. This is a really common problem in failing answers, so don’t make light of it if you notice this was a problem for you.
I know it’s not easy to look failure in the face and pick up those old essays and read them with a fresh, objective set of eyes. It probably feels terrible—maybe even like you’re failing all over again. It can be hard to keep the shame at bay and not think things like, “How could I have been so stupid?” But you know what the good news is? If you think your old exam answers look terrible now, that at least means that you understand there was a problem. It’s a lot harder to come back if you can’t even see where you went wrong.
The next step is to get incredibly specific. It’s too easy to say, “Well, these essays are all awful—okay, moving on to bigger and better things!” Hold up. Not yet. You need to delve into why you think they’re awful. What is it about them precisely that is awful? Is it that you rambled with no structure? Did you write about non-issues? Did you run out of time? How were your rule statements?
Unless you can figure out in detail what the problems are, you’re not going to find a solution. So, even though it’s tough, spend some time with these bad boys. Get to know them. Go through them with a red pen if you want and pretend you’re grading someone else’s work. And, once you’re done, if you want to torch them (in a fireproof pail, far away from any dry grass or baby animals), I’m certainly not gonna stand in your way.
Stop making excuses.
Sometimes students receive their answers back and think to themselves, “These actually look decent to me, I don’t understand why they didn’t pass. It must just be a flawed system.” Or—and this one is really common—students will chock the failure up to some freak incident. Here are some real examples I’ve actually heard:
- “My girlfriend and I got in a fight the night before the exam, so I was all distracted.”
- “I drank the wrong tea the morning of the test, so it threw off my whole game since I had no caffeine in my system.”
- “The proctor was really mean and distracting and the room was freezing, I just couldn’t concentrate.”
Do these sound like real reasons a person who is totally prepared for the exam would fail? Or, do these sound like excuses? I’ll let you be the judge. If you’re telling yourself anything along these lines, though, back up and consider whether everything else was really in place (see above), or whether you’re grasping at straws.
Again, I know it’s hard. No one wants to believe they tried their very hardest and still fell short. That is perhaps the most vulnerable and difficult position to be in. But again, the only way out is through! You have to figure out the problem (the real problem, not some random excuse of a problem), or you won’t make much progress toward fixing it.
Reach out if you need help.
If you’re really not sure what went wrong, or what you could have done better, then chances are, you need help reviewing your work and coming up with a game plan. If the graders saw fit to fail your exam, then there must be something wrong with your answers. The sooner you can determine what that something is, the faster you can pick yourself up and charge forward.
A lot of what I help students with involves coming up with goals for themselves, encouraging them, helping them see shortcomings in their work that they can’t or don’t want to see on their own. I do my best to call out all the problems so we can work on fixing them—first together with training wheels, then on their own.
The substantive law is important, but it’s a small part of passing this test. Quite a few students have come to us who clearly knew the substantive law well but still failed. There’s a lot more to passing than that. So, before you get amped up to go make a towering stack of flash cards or re-watch hours upon hours of video lectures, contemplate what went wrong and ask yourself if there’s a better way. What could you do differently this time around?
Maybe it’s not the easiest or most comfortable route, but the best bar preparation rarely is. Do what makes you uncomfortable instead. And, as always, if you need help, we’re here for you! Best of luck on your bar exam journey—whatever that involves for you.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Failed the Bar Exam? How to Be The Ultimate Sore Loser
- 5 Things I Did Differently The Second Time to Pass the Bar Exam
- I Failed the California Bar Exam! Here’s Some Encouragement to Help
- How Can Parents Help Their Student Who Failed the Bar
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