Have you googled “Famous People Who’ve Failed the Bar” at least once since deciding to go to law school? I’m pretty sure you have. I did. I don’t know why reading about these people gave me such comfort, but knowing there were other people out there who had failed, successful people who’ve built incredible careers post failure, helped calm the “I am stupid” mantra my brain had on repeat.
I hope reading this, seeing their names lined out in front of you, will help you to comfort that uncomfortability that comes with failing the bar.
1. Michelle Obama
The former First Lady, failed the Illinois bar. She was devastated, having never failed a test in her life, but pulled herself up by the bootstraps and passed on her second attempt. In her book Becoming, she states, “In the end, aside from issues of pride, my screwup would make no difference at all.”
Failing the bar makes absolutely no difference in the long run. It is a fact, but it does not decide the rest of your life. And if you are anything like me, it is the event that will show you who you are – and this doesn’t mean you have to retake it. Whether you decide to try again, the decision you make, and the reasoning behind the decision, will show you what you’re made of. For me, I learned I was made of GRIT, and I know that if I hadn’t taken the bar a second time and stood by my decision, I would still be made of GRIT.
2. Kathleen Sullivan
Sullivan, a former dean of Stanford University’s Law School and pro bono constitutional lawyer, failed the California bar in 2005. This was after being a member of both the Massachusetts and New York bars since the early 1980s. In 2006, she retook the exam and passed.
I think this shows how useless the bar exam is at proving your salt as a potential attorney. If a woman who’s been practicing for over twenty years can fail on her third bar, the bar exam is nothing more than a hurdle one has to cross – but it does not decide your worth.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Failed the New York bar on his first attempt. Became President.
I don’t know why hearing about individuals who’ve failed the New York bar (specifically) and then went on to have incredible lives tickles me so, but it does.
4. Benjamin Cardozo
Admittedly, after some research, I discovered that this one is a tall tale. It has been rumored for decades that Supreme Court Justice Cardozo failed the bar five times before finally passing on the six. The truth is, he passed the first time but after dropping out of law school! Cardozo actually left law school without graduating, and then took the bar exam and did pass. So again, all this proves to me is how the bar exam is not a great benchmark for how you will do as an attorney, despite how law schools tout it.
5. Hillary Clinton
My mother repeated this fact to me nearly every day of my second bar prep. It was her battle cry and what propelled me to attempt the bar again. I didn’t want to start with Clinton, because what most people don’t know is that she actually took the bar in both Arkansas and D.C. at the same time, passed in Arkansas and failed D.C. So yes, she failed, but she also passed a bar on her first try, and maybe if she hadn’t been studying for two exams at once she would have passed D.C. easily.
The point I am trying to make is that the bar exam is not a true indicator of the attorney you will be. We don’t even learn the skills of an attorney (other than research and writing) in law school unless we seek those courses out. Additionally, the bar exam tests your knowledge of arcane black letter laws and ability to reason with the issues at hand, but it doesn’t test the real work of an attorney. The MPTs are the closest we get to being tested on something an attorney would do on a daily basis, and even then it’s not exact.
If you are about to take the bar, or just found out you failed, just remember: you are in great company. A bar exam failure cannot stop you from having a successful career. It does not determine who you are and what you’re made of. Dig deep and decide if you want to take it again, and if you do, figure out how you study best, maybe hire a tutor, or build an individualized study plan and stick to it. You can overcome this, and know that it will have absolutely no impact on you in the long run.
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