It’s probably every law student’s worst fear: failing the bar exam. You’ve invested time and money in seven years of higher education, three of them specifically aimed at one particular profession…so what will you do if you can’t get admitted to that profession? What will you do when everyone finds out? Will your career be over before it starts? Are you too lazy or not intelligent enough to be a lawyer?
The fact is that not everyone passes the first time. In some states less than a third of people taking the exam pass.
If you fail the bar exam, there are two important things you need to know: First, you’re not stupid and your life is not over. Second, it’s critical to figure out why you failed so you can pass the next time.
It’s a common mistake to assume that if you failed the bar, you didn’t study enough and you simply need to redouble your efforts. But if you repeat the same preparation as last time, just with more hours, you’re probably going to keep making the same mistakes.
It doesn’t matter if you were at the top of your class in law school or have always done well on exams. Many smart, hardworking people still fail the bar exam. The good news is, if you figure out what went wrong, you can address whatever stood in the way of passing. So, why do people really fail the bar exam?
1. You Did Not Practice Enough
One of the most common reasons for failing the bar exam isn’t a lack of knowledge, which is why people who fail often feel confused – they knew the law, so what was the problem? Just like on law school exams, the key is application. Many people spend so much time studying and memorizing the law that they don’t do enough practice questions to see how their multiple choice accuracy is, or if their essays are hitting the points in the model answers. These students tend to know the law really well but flounder when asked to apply it to fact patterns, so when they take the exam they simply won’t be able to earn enough points to pass.
2. You Did Not Course Correct
You registered for your bar prep course, you read and memorized, and you did all the practice questions. You did everything you were supposed to do and you still failed – so you really must be dumb, right? Wrong. Following a study plan to the letter is not going to help you pass unless you are actually tracking your progress and fixing your mistakes. You can do 3,000 multiple choice practice questions, but if you don’t identify why you get answers wrong, you’ll never give the correct answer to any similar questions, whether in practice or on the exam.
For multiple choice, it’s easy to simply tally up your correct and incorrect answers and move on. Or maybe you’re reading the explanations as to why you got the question wrong before nodding, vowing not to miss that one again, and moving on. But what you really need to do is figure out WHY you got the question wrong. What was your error? Did you not know the law? Did you misread the fact pattern? Did you misread the call of the question? Or misread the answer choices? Keep track of what mistakes you are actually making, so you can see a pattern of what you need to work on.
For the essays, you need to do the same self-analysis. You can’t just read the model answer and think either, well now I know, or, oh yeah I know that rule, I’ll remember for next time. You need to see what you missed. Are you overthinking the fact pattern and making complicated and creative arguments? While that creativity and thoughtfulness will make you a valuable attorney, the bar exam is looking for formulaic, structured answers, and if you don’t crack the formula they want and learn to use it on every question, you will not earn enough points to pass.
Remember, it’s easy to arrive at an incorrect conclusion even if you understand the law, so find your weaknesses and spend time strengthening them instead of telling yourself hours of studying and the act of answering questions will be enough for you to pass.
3. You Did Not Know The Law
Unlike the reasons discussed above where students know the law but fail to apply it correctly, some students really don’t know the law well enough, and if you don’t know the law, you can’t apply it to give a correct answer. Especially in jurisdictions where the essays demand a thorough understanding of state law, there is a lot you need to know for this exam, so make sure you have the time you need to learn it all.
Many students who do not know the law well enough for the bar exam either did not put in the time they needed, or they did not have enough time because of a busy work schedule, or they did not take many bar classes in law school and simply need longer to learn each subject than their bar prep course tells them they do.
Other students struggle to actually understand what they are so busy memorizing. Bar exam courses are not known for being tailored to multiple learning styles, and for some students, being handed a stack of books, a schedule, and some online lectures is not enough guidance or interaction for their learning style.
4. You Didn’t Practice Time Management
Some students have all the time they need to learn the law, they practice often and effectively and see their accuracy improve as the exam gets closer, but when they get to the exam, they simply find that they keep running out of time before they have answered all of the questions.
Practicing answering questions is great, but as the exam date draw closer, you need to be timing yourself and, if possible, practicing in a test-like environment. Use an actual timer when doing practice sets and don’t give yourself any leeway. Meet up with a few friends and reserve a room in your school’s library or a classroom and use a timer as you all take a full-length mock exam. If you are paying attention to timing when you prepare, you’ll be able to see if it’s a struggle for you and work on improving it so you’re not blindsided on exam day.
5. You Have Anxiety
Anxiety is a very common issue for many people, and it’s extremely prevalent among law students. Anxiety might cause you to study for hours and hours but prevent you from retaining much of anything because your brain is so busy worrying about the very exam you’re trying to prepare for. It might get in the way of sleeping well, and rest is essential for your brain to be able to memorize and understand information. Some people with anxiety find that in an exam environment they will “blank” or “freeze.” If you suffer from anxiety, make sure you’re addressing it like any other difficulty in your preparation process. Eat well, exercise, get sleep, consider yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, or relaxation exercises. Don’t isolate yourself and be sure to see people socially. And if your anxiety is severe, consider seeking help from a professional.
If you failed the bar exam, no matter what the reason, don’t get discouraged and don’t beat yourself up. Figure out what went wrong and how you can fix the problem. Consider a tutor or more specialized prep course – explore alternatives to the main prep programs most people use, since more of the same is unlikely to produce a different result.
Finally, remember that if you failed the bar exam, you’re actually in very good company. Michelle Obama, Benjamin Cardozo, FDR, Hilary Clinton, JFK Jr., Richard Daley, Kathleen Sullivan, Ed Koch, Pete Wilson, and David Paterson all failed AT LEAST once, some up to three times. None of their careers ended before they could begin, and neither will yours.