We are pleased to welcome Jeena Cho to the Bar Exam Toolbox blog. Jeena Cho is a lawyer that fixes debt problems. She is here today to share a very personal story about failing the bar exam and she offers great advice to those facing the same predicament. Welcome, Jeena!
It’s been 10 years since I failed the New York bar exam. In writing this post, I asked myself, “What advice would I give to my 24 year old self?” While I remember the morning of the bar exam results announcement with great clarity, it’s been long enough that I have some perspective on the experience. But first, my story.
My Korean immigrant mother was always clear – work hard and succeed. Those two elements were always interrelated. You work hard, give it your 100%, and you will succeed. All my life, that formula worked. I studied, got good grades, did well on the SAT, got into college, took the LSAT, and got into law school. I applied myself. I sat in the first row of every class. I was on law review. I did everything “right.” Anytime I wanted something, I applied myself and I got it. Until … the New York bar exam.
I still remember the months of hysteria leading up to the bar exam. Like all of my classmates, I signed up for a bar review course, sat through the video-taped lectures, did the homework assignments, made flash cards, and studied. The thought that I can spend three years of my life, borrow tens of thousands of dollars, and fall short by failing the bar never occurred to me.
The morning of the bar results release, I got out of bed after a restless night of tossing and turning, booted up my computer and punched in my ID number.
My stomach sank as I read the words, “Your ID number does not appear on the pass list.”
I don’t remember if it was immediate or gradual, but the message sank in – you failed. You are a failure. How would I explain to my mother that her oldest daughter is a failure? I would be rendering meaningless everything she fought for, everything she sacrificed in a single stroke – by failing the New York bar exam.
Eventually, I told my mom. I also told my to-be employer in Manhattan that I didn’t pass. While he was sympathetic, he expressed skepticism about whether he can hold my position open until the following year.
So, that was my life. I went from being a bright star student to a failure. I took away my mother’s bragging right to be able to announce to her friends that her daughter was a lawyer. I was running out of the loan money and I went into a deep depression.
Instead of retaking the New York bar exam, I moved to Florida. After spending seven very long and cold years in Buffalo, New York, Tampa felt wonderful.
I sat for the February Florida bar exam. I didn’t study with anyone and I didn’t socialize. I didn’t have the hysteria and drama of other law students around me. I just did what I was supposed to. I studied – a lot. And I passed.
After few years in Florida, I moved to California, and passed the California attorney exam.
So, what would I tell my 24 year old self that just failed the exam?
1. You failed an exam. It’s just an exam.
I know it feels like your life will end. You can get caught in a cycle of never-ending negative thoughts that goes something like this: “I failed the bar exam. I am a failure. I will never pass the bar exam. I’ll never be able to repay all those student loans. I’m going to die living in my parents’ basement.” Our brain loves drama. Our brain loves to go into full “catastrophizing” mode. This negative internal dialogue will only harm you.
It’s perfectly natural to have negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. That makes you human. But the more weight you give to those negative thoughts, the harder it will be to pass the bar exam. So, combat that inner critic. Write down the negative thoughts and ask yourself, “Do I know for certain this is true?” For example, if your inner critic says, “You will never pass the exam,” challenge it by asking, “Do I know for certain this is true?” Another option is simply to acknowledge your inner critic and not give it any more power. You can say, “Thank you, inner critic but right now, I have to study.”
2. This too shall pass.
Humans naturally have a tendency to believe whatever condition you’re experiencing will continue into the future forever. Yes, you didn’t pass the bar exam but that doesn’t mean you will always be that person that didn’t pass the bar exam. Maybe six months from now, you’ll be an attorney. Or maybe you’ll be a wildly successful writer. That label you give yourself – “the person that failed” – won’t always be your label, unless you chose to let it.
3. Be kind.
What is your motivational tool? Do you use the whip or honey? Many of us use the whip and negative reinforcement to push ourselves harder. We label ourselves, call ourselves names, and treat ourselves in a way that we would never anyone else. We are our own worst critic.
You suffered a horrible, painful, sad loss. You dedicated yourself to passing the bar exam for the past three years and you didn’t pass. If your friend suffered such a loss, how would you react? How would you react to a stranger that suffered such loss? Would you call him or her names? Would you criticize him or her? Of course not.
You are an amazing person and are more than the bar exam. You have a right to treat yourself kindly. You can pass the exam on the next try, or on the 10th try, or never. It doesn’t diminish you. Don’t let it define you.
Jeena Cho is a lawyer that fixes debt problems. She’s also an author. Her first book is How to Manage Your Law Office (LexisNexis). She’s currently working on her second book, The Anxious Lawyer (ABA) about how meditation can improve lawyer’s practice. Jeena frequently speaks on the topic of “Solopreneur.” You can follow her on Twitter at @jeena_cho.
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Did you find this post helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Are You Feeling Like the Only Person Who Failed the Bar Exam?
- I Failed the Bar Exam? Should I Try to Take the Exam in a Different State?
- Coming Back After a Bar Exam Failure – Gearing Up to Study Again
- You Failed the Bar Exam, But You Can Still Become a Great Lawyer!