Monday, November 4, 2019
Logically it makes no sense that, in today’s world, failing at something because you tried will tarnish you with a negative social label. . . . [T]o continue evolving, the stigma associated with failure has to be shaken off and be replaced with positive personal development. When you fail at something, hopefully you can recogni[z]e why and where you failed, so that next time you can move forward accordingly. – C. Montcrieff
Bar takers in all but one state have received results from the July 2019 bar exam. Although California examinees may have to wait another week for results, with increased MBE scores reported nationally, bar passage rates (overall) are deliciously higher than recent past exams. What better way to transition to the semester wind down than with news of newly licensed attorneys joining the ranks of your alumni rosters!
I am elated and overjoyed for my students who find their names on the bar pass list. I understand the sacrifice, the grit, the fear, the pressure, the exhaustion, and the anxiety that are necessary conditions precedent to bar passage. I actually get teary-eyed as I scroll through the social media feeds of newly minted attorneys that contain expressions of joy and gratitude for the obstacles they overcame and support they received.
My joy is tempered by the heartache I feel for those who fought so valiantly and fell short of the state cut score. It never ceases to amaze me how a day that brings elation can, at the same time, end in devastation. Those of us doing ASP work must manage that range of emotions altogether in the same day. We collect data and publish articles on interventions that lead to bar success in licensure candidates with known failure indicators. We are experientially trained to manage bad news and to earnestly encourage unsuccessful students to try anew. But how does the reality of our calling square with the purpose of our profession?
We must examine the role and reality of stigma in bar exam failure and determine where, how, and if, it fits into the notion that diversity in the legal profession is not solely about racial and socio-economic inclusion. The diversity promoted by effective academic support programs includes intellectual disparities, physical and emotional disabilities, linguistic variations, and learning differences.
The definition of academic and bar success is changing. Success for some may be sitting through a two-day exam without the testing accommodations relied upon during law school. For others, it can be completing an exam scribed in a language other than the test-taker's native tongue. For many bar takers who graduated in the bottom quartile of their law school classes and/or with low entering LSAT scores, success may be coming within 5-10 points of a passing score, that all published statistics said that they could not achieve.
I dare not suggest that legal educators dismiss or ignore bar failure, but I challenge the status quo about how we frame bar failure as part of professional identity formation. Moved by the MacCrate Report, law teachers have become more intentional about teaching, and have begun to support law students’ professional identity formation inside and outside of the classroom.1 I see no reason for that support to end with the bar examination. As we normalize struggle2, we must communicate bar failure as a temporary status and not as an indelible component of one’s professional identity.
1 Susan L. Brooks, Fostering Wholehearted Lawyers: Practical Guidance for Supporting Law Students' Professional Identity Formation 14 U. ST. THOMAS L.J. 377 (2018).
2 Catherine Martin Christopher, Normalizing Struggle, ___ Arkansas L. Rev. ___ (2019).