Is Failing the Bar Exam the Death Knell of a Legal Career?

Four tips for bouncing back from a bar exam disappointment

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Bar results are out across the country (and pass rates overall are significantly lower than average), meaning tens of thousands of aspiring attorneys got the bad news that they failed the bar exam. Is this “game over” for any chance of a successful legal career? Even if it feels like it at the time, the answer is No. It’s entirely possible to bounce back from a bar exam failure and have a happy, successful legal career.

But next steps matter. If you recently learned you failed the bar exam, here are some tips:

  1. Take the time to be upset. Let’s face it, failing the bar is a major bummer. It’s normal to be frustrated, angry, embarrassed, sad — you name it and someone’s probably felt it about the bar exam. While of course you need to regroup with a plan, it’s also critical to take the time you need to really process your emotional response. In some cases, it might be helpful to work through your feelings with a counselor or coach, to ensure you’re mentally and emotionally ready to study again. Because what’s more upsetting than failing the bar exam once? Failing it again. Be sure you’re over the initial shock and anguish before you try to study again. Otherwise, things aren't likely to end well.
  2. Ask for help. The good thing about the bar exam is that it’s a very learnable test. If you weren’t successful in this attempt, it’s critical to get help and expert advice about what to do differently next time. It’s always heartbreaking when we get emails at the Bar Exam Toolbox from students who failed once, studied the exact same way the second time, and failed again. Failing the bar is a very strong signal that the approach you took last time didn’t work. Don’t just do the same thing again! Although it’s hard to admit the thousands of dollars you spent on a bar review course didn’t lead to the result you wanted and expected, that’s the reality. That money is gone, and retaking the same course again won’t get it back. Difficult though it may be, you’ve got to seek out and act on advice from people who can help you analyze why your bar prep wasn’t effective. Changing your preparation approach is the only reliable way to change the end result.
  1. Don’t blow this roadblock out of proportion. Yes, failing the bar exam is a big deal. No, it’s not the end of the world. And, the good news is that once you pass, no one really cares about the details. Lots of successful attorneys have had trouble on the bar exam, so you’re in good company. 
  2. Do everything you can to pass on the next try. Whether you have a job or not, it’s important to do everything you can to pass the bar on your next attempt. If you have a law job, it’s relatively unlikely you’ll be fired after one bar failure (although it’s not out of the question). But you’ll almost certainly be let go after bar failure number two. If you don’t currently have a law job, it’s even more critical to pass next time, since you’re highly unlikely to get a job offer until you’re admitted. If you’re working, consider taking time off (and talk to your boss early), to ensure you’re as prepared for the next bar exam as possible. It’s a lot to balance, but there’s a lot on the line.

    If you failed the bar, know that you’re not alone and that this situation has nothing to say about your ultimate fitness for the legal profession. Here are a few first-hand accounts from now-successful attorneys who initially failed the New York and California bar exams

    They persevered, and you can, too!