OMG – I Failed the Bar! Now What?

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

I failed the first Bar I took.

There I said it.  I admit, I still feel the sting of shame when saying it.  I shouldn’t – I went on to pass two other bars, had a great career practicing civil rights defense, and am now doing what I absolutely love.  But, it’s there – shame, embarrassment, fear of failure, the thought that I am a failure despite my other successes.  So, I understand that right now you want to crawl under a rock and never come out.  That’s ok. And you should do the 2013 equivalent: Don’t check Facebook for a while, stay off Twitter, ignore the Instagram pics of your friends celebrating, [insert whatever other social media is relevant].  Give yourself time to grieve because you worked really hard and have suffered a huge disappointment.  Then, after a suitable mourning period, put down the tub of Ben & Jerry’s and make a recovery plan.  Why?  Because you’ve worked too hard not to.  Failing the Bar isn’t a reflection on how smart you are or how worthy you are to practice law.  It’s a setback to be sure, but one you can recover from with a good game plan.  I suggest examining the following in order to determine what you might need to change for the next time around.

1. IS THIS THE RIGHT BAR FOR YOU?

I know, that sounds like a stupid question, but hear me out.  This may not apply to you, but there are a number of folks out there who are pressured into taking a certain Bar because deadlines are coming up, and you have to pick something.  If that was the case for you, take some time to evaluate where you want to practice, what states might have reciprocity with other places you might like to practice, and where there are good bar passage rates for second-time test takers.  Has something come up that makes you want to be in another state?  You may find this wasn’t the right one in the first place, and you’ll be glad you didn’t pass.

2. DID YOU STUDY TOO MUCH/NOT ENOUGH/IN THE RIGHT WAY?

That was my problem.  I took an in-person class and didn’t work during my first bar, so I had “all the time in the world” to study.  Turns out I drastically misused my time, and didn’t retain nearly enough.  My advice on this point has always been (to a lot of success) to think about how you managed exams in law school.  If you were the type to have a lot going on so that you had to really focus in the precious time you had to study for exams (me), then you probably shouldn’t have an entire day every day to study for the Bar.  I also should not have attended in person classes, and remedied that mistake in the next two Bar exams I took (and passed).  Back in the day, there was an option to have the classes on cassette tape (I know, right?).  That’s how I did it for the next two Bars, and it made me really focus on what the instructor was saying.  I could study when I was the most focused (and not when the class was scheduled), and I could go back to places where I needed to listen again.  Now there are much better and varied tools, so think about what works best for you and make it happen.

3. ARE YOU TAKING ENOUGH BREAKS?

I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I’m also sure you heard this a lot in law school.  It’s even more important now.  You know from the first time that you’re in the “Bar Study Bubble.”  You need to take care of yourself and make sure you get enough breaks so that you can sleep well, eat right and get some exercise.  Nothing will be retained if you can’t focus.  And, another important safety tip – have regular contact with people not taking the Bar (or about to practice law for that matter).  You need to talk about/think about things that are not law or Bar-related.  My boyfriend (now husband) and I were frankly poor when I was taking the Bar the second time.  But, he did make sure we regularly went to the movies or some other (even free) activity to get my mind off studying for the Bar for a while.  Don’t worry – it will still be there to obsess over when you’re done.

4. BY HOW MUCH DID YOU NOT PASS?

If it was by more than 12-15 points, then you need to seriously reevaluate how you studied and what bar review materials/mechanisms you used.  If you need some guidance in this area, go back to your law school’s student affairs office.  They are usually the ones with their pulse on all the Bar exams and their requirements, and are savvy about what tools work.

5. AND FINALLY – GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!

Yes, you failed the Bar.  Yes, it sucks!  But, yes, you will get past it and go on to have a glorious career.  Just make sure you do what you need to do to get ready.  And good luck!  I will be doing the happy dance for you when you pass in February.

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