8 Things I Learned From Failing the Bar

Kate Currer Bitter by Numbers, Features Lawyer, Lawyer 8 Comments

Waiting for your bar results can be the most stressful period of your life. Last year, I failed the July administration of the bar exam, but I went on to pass the February exam. I cannot undermine or ignore how devastating it was to fail, but the process of correcting what went wrong the first time—cliché, I know—taught me a lot about myself. Here are eight things I learned after failing the bar exam.

1. How to Get Out of My Brain

The first time I studied for the bar, I allowed my own stress to become all-consuming. I became convinced that I could or would fail, and those thoughts made me unable to focus on the work in front of me. The second time around, I was technically under more stress, because the stakes had been raised after failing once. However, I learned to compartmentalize my stress, so that I would be able to focus on the task in front of me.  If I had just been able to turn my brain off the first time, I would have been able to process enough information to pass.

2. How to Own My Own Failure

Failing the bar was the first real failure of my life. I had been rejected from one college and a few law schools, but I was accepted by others, so I didn’t even have to bring it up if I didn’t want to tell people. This was the first failure that affected my life. I had many people in my life awaiting my bar results, and I had to tell them that I had failed. I learned that telling someone about your failure with confidence in your voice gives you all the power in the exchange. It’s harder for someone to make you feel bad when you do not invite pity or disdain.

3. People Are Willing to Help

Going through a difficult time can make you realize who in your life is supportive when things get rough. I was able to see who made my situation the butt of a joke, and who was there to help or support or listen. I was also introduced to people who were relative strangers but willing to help me through this weird period. People who have been through something difficult are more willing to help out someone who has been through that same situation, even if that situation is the only connection between those two people. I found support from loved ones and strangers.

4. No One Thinks I am an Idiot

When I was afraid of failing the bar, what I was most afraid of was that everyone would think I was actually stupid, despite my seven years of higher education. When I did in fact fail, the response I got from most people was that they still thought I was smart, and this was just a set-back that I would overcome. I had thought my failure would be the opportunity for people to say that they were surprised I had even graduated from law school. Instead, people told me how surprised they were that I had failed and how sure they were that I would pass the next time. It was the one thing I was most afraid of, and it ended up being a boost.

5. Lawyers Don’t Think You Will Be a Bad Lawyer

Along with no one thinking I was idiot, no lawyer thought failing the bar would affect my ability to be a good lawyer. I was constantly met with stories of someone from the office or from school who had failed the first time and then done something incredibly impressive, like becoming a judge or a millionaire or Secretary of State. It made me believe that I had not ruined my career, just delayed its development.

6. It’s Important to Believe You Will Succeed

The biggest problem for me the first time around was that I was sure I would fail. Now, I don’t believe in The Secret or most hippie/athletic maxims about visualizing success. However, my fear about failure overrode my belief in my own success the first time around. So, the stress became paralyzing, and any effort I spent felt like a waste. When you think you are going to fail, you start to conserve energy. When you believe in your own success, you work as hard as you think you might have to, and there is no consideration that you are “wasting” time or effort spent. Also, you become able to manage the stress because you feel like you are working towards something you want. The second time I studied, I told myself I would pass, and every effort that followed was directed towards that goal, and any stress became manageable.

 7. I Need a Release When I Work

The summer I studied for the first time, the only thing in my life was studying. I lived with other people studying, got drinks after class with other studiers, and lived in a town consisting of nothing but studying. The second time around, I did stand-up almost every night, watched movies with non-lawyer friends, and worked part-time. For me, that meant that when I worked, I worked furiously, and when I took breaks, they were real. When I made studying my whole life, most of the time I was not working, I was just feeling guilty about not working. It was exhausting. Having a release valve on the task at hand made the work I did better.

8. I Work Best Alone and Unmonitored

The first time I studied for the bar, I was living in the small town where I had gone to law school, and I lived with two of my best friends who were also studying for the bar. Emotionally, it was nice to be surrounded by people who were going through the same thing. Psychologically, for me, the experience was paralyzing. I constantly compared myself to other people, which either made me feel inadequate or complacent. The second time around, I took all the same materials from my test prep company, and I borrowed a schedule from someone who tutors second-time test takers. I maintained my schedule best when I didn’t have to report to anyone, and the final two weeks were the most productive of my life because I set the goal of doing as many different things each day (between subjects and assignments), and I chose my tasks on a day-to-day basis. I had to learn the hard way that I work best when I am unmonitored by any external force.

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  • Cilantro

    Thanks for this post! I am anxiously awaiting my own results, and 4 and 5 sum up my fears perfectly. It’s nice to know, should I end up failing, that my family, friends, and colleagues won’t necessarily judge and dismiss me forever. Oh, and thanks for the suggestion about how best to deliver bad news. I am going to keep that in mind, just in case…

  • Ruckus

    I had to learn the hard way that I work best when I am unmonitored by any external force.
    Very few of us ever get to work when unmonitored by anyone/thing but themselves. Maybe what works best for you is not allowing the idea that other peoples visions of you and your work is more important than your own. IOW have some confidence about your abilities. In your case you spent 7 yrs in school and graduated. You never studied during that time? You were never successful? I didn’t think so. I have seen this as a problem in many areas, not just lawyers. The opposite is that one has no idea of their limits and gets in over their head all the time. I call these people bullshitters.

  • Chere Estrin

    Here’s the deal: Once you do pass the bar, no one ever asks you, “BTW, how many times did you take the bar?” They hire you or they don’t based upon a whole host of other criteria. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

  • Daphne Macklin

    I so know where the writer is coming from. It took me 5 times. The first three times I made the mistake of taking the exams back-to-back. The fourth time I had taken a perfect job for someone studying for the bar exam (legislative advocate), but because of the workload (the California Legislature is extremely busy in February), I could only take the July exam. This turned out to be a blessing because, I would eventually learn that the February exam is graded more strictly because the evaluators know that they are mainly dealing with repeat examinees. So, I had a whole year to study with a paycheck and the month of July off because that’s when the Legislature takes its summer break. I probably passed on the 4th administration of the test but there was a scoring SNAFU that resulted in some litigation. By now I had become quite Zen about the whole thing and simply focused on taking the next July exam.

    This time, 1984, the Bar had settled on a new format that included a practicum writing component complete with research materials that you were supposed to incorporate into your three hour essay. The last question on the last day asked the examinee to outline a negotiating strategy. I recall loud wails from other people in the room. I on the other hand had spent the last two years doing negotiation for a living. I recall I started writing and didn’t stop until the proctors called time. And, the following November, in a year when there was one of the lowest bar passage rates ever, me on try number 5, I passed.

  • Ronnie

    I also failed the first time, and the only thing that happened was that people came out of the woodwork to tell me that they had failed too, and that everything was going to be just fine. The worst part of it was that results came out 3 days before my birthday, and I was pretty depressed as a result. I also didn’t get a few jobs I’d applied for, because a lawyer without a license is pretty useless in small firms. When I did pass, in April 2006, I got a job within 6 weeks, and no one has cared since.

  • Bryan

    Thanks for what you have written here..I have failed my bar exam in my country. .as you said, many people awaiting for my results, but I failed eventually, and those friends who formed study group together with me, stay together when we were sitting for the exam, they all got through. .and I’m the only only one left behind..and the reality is, when they are discussing about where to chamber, I will be totally being neglected, I will be the one whom they don’t know what to talk to, I feel sorry to my parents for disappointing them…I made a fast decision once I got my results by getting a job as a legal intern in a multinational corporate company, and started all over again for my studies. .but sometimes I will still feeling high school mates have started working in their own profession, but I am still working as an intern student even though I have already got my law degree. .I always feel that I have been late for another one year, everything in my life will be delayed at least one year. .because this is the first failure in my lifetime which indeed had affected my entire life..I wish I would write one article as you did in future by motivating others how to get through this miserable time.

  • Alyssa Marie

    Thank you for this post. I just found out I failed yesterday. Even though it sucks this post helped me get it into
    Perspective. You even had the same first time experience I did. This second time will be at my own pace and unmonitored, which I’m sure will alleviate my stress.

  • KO

    Just wanted you to know that this was so refreshing to read; I could relate to everything you said and I really hope that come February it works out for me too.