The age old question, the law student’s equivalent of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”: “Will I pass the bar exam?”
Unfortunately, I don’t know whether you, specifically, will pass the bar exam. This question seems to crop up at four key points in a budding lawyer’s career: prospective law students often ask this before applying or beginning law school, 3Ls or recent graduates ask this as they begin studying for the bar exam, those planning to take the bar exam ask this in the week before the exam, and those who have taken the exam ask this while waiting for their results. Based on when you are asking this question, I can offer some advice that may alleviate some of the anxiety around this question.
Prospective Law Students
If you are a prospective law student, considering applying or about to start law school, it is justifiable to worry about whether or not you will be able to pass the bar exam and get a job as a practicing attorney. Law school is expensive and time consuming, and it isn’t for everyone. It is especially daunting to consider three years and debt if you aren’t sure you can succeed. In general, however, most people who have done reasonably well on the LSAT and in college, have the potential to pass the bar exam. It is a test that you can (and should, and will!) study for.
Passing the bar exam, however, is just one obstacle to tackle in getting a job. The legal job market is tough, with more law school graduates than law jobs each year. So consider all of the challenges to getting a job after law school, and don’t focus on the bar exam.
3Ls and Recent Graduates
The bar exam is a natural source of stress and anxiety for 3Ls and recent graduates. It is the next great hurdle, and it is natural to turn your attention, and worry, towards it. But at this stage, it is more productive to ask “How do I pass the bar exam?” than to ask “Will I pass the bar exam?” It is important to dedicate attention to developing a plan that will improve your chances of passing the bar exam and not worry over statistics. Devote yourself to developing a study schedule that will suit your needs, scheduling your exam date, finding a bar exam prep course that will work for you, and weighing the appropriateness of other resources, like a bar exam tutor.
Those taking the Bar Exam (Really) Soon
Many of those preparing for the bar exam have a brief period of panic in the lead-up to the bar exam. About a week before the exam, (almost) everyone realizes just how quickly the exam is approaching and how much more they need to or want to study. It is usually a pretty frantic period, even for those who are generally cool under pressure. The cost of the exam, the time spent studying, and the uncertainty of the outcome usually start to build into a perfect storm of anxiety. If you are asking “Will I pass the bar exam?” during this last week, the best thing you can do is to recognize this question as part of this last-week anxiety, set it aside, and focus instead on studying.
Those Awaiting their Results
There are a few ways to evaluate your bar exam-taking experience and reasons for doing so. In awaiting your results and asking yourself, “Will I pass the bar exam?,” be honest with yourself as to why you are asking.
Are you wondering whether to start studying for the next exam date? Did something truly terrible happen on exam day (medical emergency, fire alarm, computer malfunction)? If so, and it affected a significant part of your test (more than one essay, or more than a quarter of your MBEs,) it might be appropriate to start studying before you get your exam results. And if you’ve taken the bar exam one or more times before and failed, you might have a good sense of your own likelihood of success — it is worth self-reflection and, based on your conclusions, evaluating the utility of starting to study for the next exam date.
But many people are asking because they can’t quite let go of the stress and intensity that carried them through the bar exam. If that’s the case, please do your best to put it out of your mind. If you have a trip planned, let that distract you! If you are working or looking for a job, dedicate your attention to that.
But regardless of why you are asking, it is beneficial to evaluate the possibility of failing and developing a game plan if that happens. And it is good to have thought through this and formed a plan before the results are released. This can significantly alleviate the stress of waiting for results, and help you adjust smoothly if the worst happens and you do fail.
The bar exam is a stressful experience, and there are high stakes associated with passing or failing. But failing isn’t the end of the world — many successful attorneys have failed the exam and more important than focusing just on the question of passing or failing is understanding what is motivating the question and using that knowledge to improve your chances of success.