Wednesday, December 2, 2020

So You Failed The Bar.....

I write this, or some variation of it, a few times a year. And I do so because I feel passionately that it needs to be heard. Many of you are getting Bar Exam Results right now, and if the news is good, great! Congrats! However, for some of you, the news is less than idea. That's ok too. Read on!

First and foremost, this does not define you. Trust me, we have all heard stories of prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians that have failed the bar, sometimes multiple times. I could make you a list of all of the successful lawyers that were unsuccessful on the bar exam their first time.  In fact, you likely have bosses, professors, or have met judges or elected officials that have failed the bar, and you might not even know! That's because failing the bar does not define them. If you try to make a list, you won’t find “failed the bar” on Wikipedia pages, or official biographies, or resumes. It’s not because it’s some secret shame, but because no one cares. In 5-10 years, no one will care how many times it took you to pass the bar. In fact, they won’t care in 6 months or a year. It seems like a defining moment right now, but it isn’t. Your defining moments come from the way you treat clients, the way you treat colleagues, and what you choose to do with your license once you have it.

So, take a few days to be upset, it’s ok. Also, remind yourself that you are in a pandemic! And for most of you, the goal posts around the exam kept changing. There was so much extra stress involved in this last Bar Exam, and to be honest, so much extra stress in life. Sure, you might be sitting here thinking that you don't want to make excuses, and that's admirable. But, this isn't an excuse, it's reality. You were likely studying for, or taking the exam, in less than ideal circumstances. So, given that, cut yourself some slack.

Then, remember that you don't owe anyone an explanation. No one. Yes, you have a duty to be honest. If you currently have a law related job, or are in the hiring process, yes, you have to tell your employer or future employer. And you can't pretend to be licensed when you are not. But beyond that, you don't have to explain this to well meaning family or friends, or anyone else. However, you also want to trust me when I say that more people will understand than you think, and very few people will judge. 

So finally,  dust yourself off, and start looking towards the next bar. Also, remember that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a part of success. Every successful lawyer has failed – on the bar, at trial, in a negotiation, not getting a job. Every failed politician has lost a race. Every failed Olympian has lost a game or a match. That failure is a normal way to achieves success in the future. However, for that to be true, you have to learn from failure.  So, what can you do?

FIRST: Look at your score (if your state gives you the breakdown) and request back your essays (if you can). It's going to be hard, you likely don't want to look back. But you can learn so much from those scores and the essays!

Once you have your essays, I want you to do a couple things. Review your answers. Now that you are removed from the day of writing, what do you notice? If possible, compare them to the sample answers. See if you can pick out patterns. Don’t just focus on the conclusions, or the issues spotted. Did the sample answers use more facts? Or have a more in depth analysis? Be honest with yourself. Also, if you have a varied set of scores (one essay is a 1, while another is a 5) compare the 2. What is the difference? Don’t just shrug it off as you know one subject better. Pay attention to the writing in both.

THEN: Look at your score. How close or far away are you from passing? Did you do better on a certain subject? Is your written score considerably better than your MBE score? This is an excellent place to start. Some things to keep in mind:

  • If your essay score is higher than your MBE, it may be tempting to place most of your energy into MBE practice, and forget about essays. This will only result in your score “swapping.” So, while it is good to note that you might need more work on the MBE, don’t forget that you aren’t carrying the score wit you so you still need to practice essays. The reverse is true if you did better on MBE than the essays.
  • Perhaps you did really well on the torts MBE, but your lowest score was civil procedure. Again, do not just focus on civil procedure, and forget other subjects. Your scores will just swap places, and not improve overall.
  • You might be only 2 points away from passing. Great! However, your score is still starting from scratch. Meaning, in one sense, you only need 2 more points, but that’s not how the bar works, obviously. You have to still work to get the points you already got AGAIN, and it is likely you forgot things, and are out of practice.

NEXT: Think about external factors, ya know, like a pandemic!

Did something unrelated to the bar impact your studying? Perhaps a health issue, physical or mental? Perhaps a family emergency, or ongoing family issues? Did you have a good place to study? Or time? Much of this might have been beyond your control, and it might feel like you are searching for excuses, but really,  you are analyzing the situation so you can create a plan moving forward. 

Have you suffered from anxiety in general or related to exams? If you do, are you being treated for the anxiety?

These things can and will impact your studying. Not matter how much time and effort you put in, if you are not physically and mentally healthy, you won’t process the information correctly.

Not to mention, if there is something in your life that is distracting you, that will also impact how you process information, which will impact your score.

REVIEW: Your study habits!

The most important thing you can do is practice. Many bar students get caught up in trying to memorize every sing law, or master every subject. While this is admirable, and takes quite a bit of time and effort. However, mastering the bar is a SKILL. You need to practice. When I work with repeat takers, I often find that they knew the law, and they studied hard, but didn’t practice enough essays or enough timed MBE.

This matters for a few reasons. One is timing. You can know all the law in the world, but if you can’t write an essay in 30 minutes, you will struggle to get the scores you need. Similarly, doing 100 MBE questions in 3 hours is not easy, even if you DO know the law. You need to practice the timing, and practice for the stamina.

Secondly, the skill being tested on the bar is applying the law to the unique set of facts. Yes, you need to know the law to do this, but knowing the law is not enough. You need to practice the application.

This means that writing essays, fully out, not just passively reading sample answers or issue spotting, is key. It has to be a priority in studying.

In fact, all of your studying should be active. Don’t focus on rewriting, or reviewing, outline after outline. Again, yes, you need to know the law, but you are also more likely to remember the law if you apply it – in MBE questions, writing essays, and so forth.

FINALLY: Meet with your Academic Success Professor, if you have one. We are here to help, I promise! I always hope that if my students aren't successful, they will come see me right away. We want you to! And we want to help you go through those essays and that score report, and create a game plan. Trust us, it's what we do! Maybe you don't know why one of your essays was given a 1, while another was a 5. We are trained to help you! We can help you with all of the above!

LAST: Change it up. Your Academic Success Professor can likely help you identify ways to change the way you studied, or identify different resources you might use. 

Also, don't forget about non standard testing accommodations. I've had students fail the bar because they use non standard testing accommodations all through law school, and then decide not to apply for those same accommodations on the Bar Exam! That's just silly. You are entitled to them. Yes, the application process can be frustrating, but at least try.

Finally, if you don't have an Academic Success Professor to help you out, here are some resources that I give to my students:

CALI lessons! Which are free, always a bonus!

  • CALI Lessons on improving multiple choice:

Other Resources, sadly not free, but some can be helpful. If you do have an Academic Success Professor, they might have discount codes, or other ways to help you get the below resources.


Above all else, don't give up! I'll say it again, this does NOT define you, not as a person, not as a future lawyer. This is one small hiccup on your road to a fantastic career. And it's frustrating yes, but you WILL get past it!

(Melissa Hale)

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