Let me start off by saying, you never have to tell anyone you failed the bar. Not ever. You don’t have to tell a prospective employer, you don’t have to tell your parents, friends, family or any strangers you come by. This can always and forever be your secret.
But, there will be times when you decide it is beneficial to spill the “secret.” Like when your parents ask why you’re studying for another three months, or your employer requires a passing score to stay on. Both situations can seem scary to come clean, but they don’t have to be.
Before I took the bar for the first time, I thought that if I failed I would be so embarrassed that I would never tell anyone. And the irony is not lost on me that I sit here, at this computer, talking more about my bar failure than about my bar passing. That’s because for me, my bar failure became a badge of resilience, something that sets me apart from my peers who did pass. It also fueled how well I did the second time around.
So, you failed the bar exam. This could be your first attempt, or your seventh (this happened in California a few years ago). Either way, you are staring at your result, dumbfounded and probably crying. (I cried like someone had died, and I was on the other side of the country when I found out. I scared the living daylights out of my mother when I called to tell her.)
I just want to tell you, first, that you are amazing. You failed an exam. You did not fail life. You are not doomed for eternity. And you most certainly do not have to tattoo an L on your forehead. It was a test – a test that many, many people fail the first time. And while it feels like the end of the world right now, it’s not. So take a deep breath, do some box breathing, and move on.
From the moment you finish the exam, everyone in your life will begin to ask you if you passed. I mean, literally from right when the test ends. I had an aunt call me just as it had finished to ask if I passed. I told her I had to wait three months, and she sounded genuinely frustrated she hadn’t gotten the scoop first.
It is absolutely okay to say, “I won’t know for awhile,” and move on. That way, they won’t know the exact month or date unless they’re ridiculously savvy, and you can announce it, or not, on your own terms. My mistake was saying “three months” and then fielding more aggressive questions throughout the month of October until I finally found out.
The most annoying thing you’ll hear throughout that time, especially if you worry audibly to those around you, will be, “You’re so smart, of course you passed.” This is, of course, because no one outside of the law knows how difficult this test is. Take those comments with a grain of salt and try not to bite anyone’s head off like I did at a family wedding three weeks after the exam. (Not a good look for the Maid of Honor.)
How to Explain You Failed
Well, this one is easy. You just say, “I failed.” Or, “I didn’t pass.” Own it. It happened. It can’t be erased; it can be rewritten, but not erased. And that is okay. Failing the bar is a badge of honor, you are now in amazing company with other greats who have failed. Don’t be ashamed.
The one thing I have come to understand about people is that as long as you own what has happened, or a decision you’ve made, no one can fault you. Sure, they’ll have an opinion and they’ll probably give it to you, but if you own the experience they will respect you.
When I failed, the first person, outside of my family, that I told was my Bar Exam Toolbox tutor. She reached out when I hadn’t contacted her about my score and sent me an article about her mentor. I read the article, as I’ve mentioned in another post, and was confused as to why she sent it. It just talked about how amazing this Judge had been. Then I remembered that my tutor had told me the Judge had failed the bar on her first try, and I realized the lesson I was being taught: no one will remember or care or base your career on your bar exam failure. Further, there will come a time where you forget you failed the bar. I’m not kidding, I’ve talked about it and written about it for a year and the other day realized I hadn’t told anyone new in my life about failing.
The Bottom Line
The times when you have to tell people you failed the bar: (1) your employer requires a bar license; or (2) you want your employer to give you time off to study to take the next exam.
Times when you don’t have to tell people you failed the bar: (1) in any instance other than the above. Aka, you never have to tell people you failed the bar. It is completely up to you.
Times when I told people I failed the bar: (1) nearly every day since November 2017, to just about anyone I met. No seriously, it was like word vomit there for awhile. Failing is part of my story. For me, my failure led to my greatest comeback and learning what I was made of, but it absolutely does not define me or my career. It’s just a thing that happened that led me to understanding what I wanted out of life. Don’t let it define you, but, if you can, and want to, let it be part of your story. I promise you, it will inspire others to do the same.