Today we welcome an attorney who shares her very personal story about failing the California bar exam and what she learned from the experience. She offers some great advice for those of you grappling with the same emotions.
When I found out I failed the California bar exam four years ago, I was devastated. On one hand, I felt cheated of an opportunity I thought I had earned and deserved. Why else had I been excelling in law school for the past three years? Why was I on the executive board of the law review and the mock trial team, and why was my school giving me 1Ls to tutor if I wasn’t good at exams? On the other hand, I also had a somewhat irrational, sneaking suspicion that while I had never thought of myself as a failure before, I had probably just been mistaken this whole time.
Failing the bar called into question every past accolade I had ever earned. My acceptance to college? It was probably a fluke. That English writing award when I was 16 where I beat out every other kid in the district? That must have been some kind of mistake. It’s a wonder I ever passed the first grade! I’m not saying these thoughts were sane, but this is what was going through my head. I believed that my entire career trajectory, probably my whole life, had suddenly and inexplicably been wrenched off course.
Eventually, I stopped wallowing in self-doubt, bucked up, took some responsibility, and followed a friend’s advice to hire Lee Burgess, a tutor she had worked with and heartily recommended.
Through working with Lee, I began to acknowledge that my inability to pass the bar on the first try had nothing to do with my utter failure as a human being (shocking, I know!).
In fact, it was the result of a number of factors, the most prominent of which was that I simply did not know what the graders were looking for. I thought because I had done well in law school, I was equipped to tackle the bar so long as worked hard and followed my review course.
I was wrong.
However, through some hard work, expert guidance from Lee, and a fundamental shift in my mindset, I was able to pass on my second try. Armed with a newly-minted bar card, though, I found myself teetering apprehensively on yet another precipice: How was I going to get a job with the blight of that first exam on my record? Even though I had overcome my failure, would others ever be able to see past it? How would I respond when failing the bar came up in my job interviews?
Well, I’m here to tell you that none of this ever happened. I interviewed for the first job I applied to, and you know what? Not one person asked me anything about the bar exam.
You know why? Because ultimately, no one cares.
Now, I have been working at this firm for over three years, and I can honestly say that no one — not my bosses, co-workers, staff, opposing counsel, or my clients — has ever asked me anything about my experience with the bar. I’m not even sure how I would respond if they did. Seeing as how honesty and candor are paramount in this profession, I would probably just be direct and say, “You know what? I actually didn’t pass on my first try, and while that experience doesn’t define me, it taught me a lot about perseverance and hard work, and I can honestly say I’m a better attorney because of it.” Like I said, though, I’ve never even had this chance. A bar card is like a driver’s license. No one will see you driving a car and think, “I wonder if that person passed the DMV exam on the first try.” Even though it doesn’t feel like it now, no one will ever care about this as much as you do. And, in time, you will learn not to care either.
I know that when you fail an exam like the bar, it can be excruciating to even admit the failure to yourself. Then, once your graded exam materials come back, it can be terrifying to face them and force yourself to ask what went wrong and how to fix it. The long hours of practice and studying as a re-tester can seem unbearable, especially if your confidence is already shaken. For me personally, reaching out for help was really difficult too, but I promise you, it was well worth it.
Four years later, I manage two branches of litigation at my firm and have hundreds of clients of my own. I have been promoted several times and given a coveted corner office overlooking one of the most beautiful cities in the world. When I learned I had failed the bar, I thought my career was over before it even started. I thought everyone was judging me. I was convinced my failure would follow me like a shadow forever. Well, I’m here to tell you that it will if you let it, but it doesn’t have to! If you’re grappling with bad news about the Bar right now, the first step in moving on is coming to terms with the situation and your role in it, and then figuring out a way to move on. And hopefully, some day very soon, what seems overwhelmingly demoralizing at this moment will turn out to be just a tiny blip in your otherwise fantastic future!
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- The Day I Failed the California Bar Exam
- The Day I Failed the New York Bar Exam
- Are You Feeling Like the Only Person Who Failed the Bar Exam?
- You Failed the Bar Exam, But You Can Still Become a Great Lawyer!
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